Intentionality of Meaning

McKenna takes us on a mind-bending ride about language, questioning if words unveil reality or cloak it. He suggests peering behind the linguistic curtain with nature and psychedelics, helping reveal life’s magical depths where fairies and elves await to make deals that unleash self-transforming possibilities. But he cautions, the storytelling mushrooms can dupe you with their wit. Tread lightly.



So since this is a fairly small group and I’m feeling fairly confident, I’d like to talk about language today, and I will attempt to open this with a performance, which is something I rarely—like, never—do.

[ Jabberwocky performance ]


That’s worth hours of the other stuff. Well, I hope—I assume—most of you recognize that as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which was an example of verbal intentionality and syntax overcoming absence of ascribed meaning. This is what’s happening here. That the intentionality of meaning is so great that it overcomes the absence of conventional definition. And we’ve been talking a lot in this section about language, and the origin of language, and we’ve also been using language in a fairly free (and in some cases unusual and in some cases outrageous) manner. So that’s what I meant when I said it made sense to examine the tools.


We are particularly neurologically outfitted for the production of small mouth noises; rapidly modulated small mouth noises. We can do this—I’ve proved it myself—for hours at a time without exhaustion. And what is going on there is that, rather than the rippling of plumage or the rubbing of hard body parts against each other (since we don’t have any hard body parts to rub against each other most of the time), communication in our species has taken the form of neuro-modulation of small mouth noises. Now, these small mouth noises are transduced into acoustical waves, a physical phenomenon which moves from point to point in ordinary Newtonian space. The acoustical pressure wave strikes the ear, the ear conveys the particular unique signature of that arriving acoustical wave into what (for lack of a better term) we have to call the mind, and the mind takes this acoustical signal and compares it with an imprinted dictionary built up out of experience. It does this very, very quickly. The speed with which the dictionary is consulted and each arriving word is identified, its syntactical class understood, and its intentionality in the domain of meaning is recognized, is very, very rapid. It represents the most rapid sort of intellectual activity that we undertake as human beings. Thought is a similar phenomenon, but it is an interior dialogue—and, God help us, let’s hope that we understand our thoughts better than what people say to us. Because in the case of our thoughts we are both the one communicating and the one communicated to.


Language is this double-edged adaptation of the human animal. It is obviously a multifaceted, multipurpose, adaptive advantage in all environmental situations. Because if you can image and linguistically process evolving situations, you have a leg up over an organism which is hardwired for reaction along the line of instincts. Yet, in the domain of cognition, it’s almost as though language has exceeded its usefulness—because someone said language was invented to lie. Well, perhaps that is too cynical, but certainly language obfuscates reality. It cannot help but do this. It does it in the following manner.


A child born into what the psychologist William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a child born into the blooming buzzing confusion attempts to isolate complexes of activity, complexes of color, sound and tactility. And the nurturing parent provides names. “This is a kitty.” “This is a bird.” “This is a blanket.” What is happening here is that the blooming, buzzing confusion is slowly being tiled over by an interlocking and seamless set of names and syntactical structures which literally, then, stand for reality. They stand for reality. So unless you are the kind of very fortunate person who speaks many, many languages fluently, and has a sense of this relativity of the intent to communicate, you are barred from realizing the context-dependency of your own language. And we all are like this.


This impressed me very much in the Amazon, because the first time I went to the Amazon I knew nothing about botany, and it appeared to me largely to be green. And when I returned some years later—having made a fairly thorough study of the taxonomic families of tropical plants—it was vast, intricate, fascinating, domain because I had terms for all these exotic floral forms, leaf forms, seed expressions, morphology. You see? Nature’s expression in the world of form is called its morphology. Morphology is the science of form. Well, form—we tend to think of it as a platonic concern. After all, aren’t the forms somewhere in a platonic hyperspace, aren’t they somehow above and beyond the machinations of language and perception? Well, they are if you’re a Platonist.


But when we look at natural form, the enterprise of science has been to attempt to describe natural form. This is essentially a program to be carried out within the domain of language, and this has been entirely overlooked by the philosophy of science so far as I can tell. I mean, the world is not made of anti-mu-mesons and quarks and photons and electromagnetic fields. Reality is made of words. Reality is made of symbolic interlocking linguisto-mathematical constructs. Everything beyond that is pure conjecture. I mean this is what you learn in Philosophy 1: the relativity of knowing, the impossibility of actually nailing down the ontos of what is presented in the theater of perception through an exercise of epistemic knowing. It cannot be done. Brain cannot fully elucidate brain. There’s a tautology there.


So language is something that springs from the biological matrix and the neurological matrix within us. And the major theme of its siren song to us is that it allows us to know the world and to communicate it. Well, the truth is: it does allow us to know the world to some degree, and it does allow us to communicate about it. But a price is paid at every step of the way. First of all, because we are concrescent entities of feeling—this is Alfred North Whitehead—we are concrescent entities of feeling, yet our language prepares us to describe a world of three-dimensional spatial relationships between solid objects. So it is not true to the perceiver, you see? There is a kind of break of faith with the world. Language betrays. Language betrays in order to mean. You know, Archibald MacLeish said: a poem should not mean, but be. And this is a reasonable statement of a poetic, but it is not a basis for a theory of communication. A theory of communication depends on correct mirroring of the meme that is being transmitted, no matter how far down the line it has come.


Well, we talked in earlier sessions about the impact of biogenically active and psychoactive amines in diet—specifically in the diet of early hominids in Africa—suggesting that the catalysis of neurological development that has gone on over the last million years in the human species was catalyzed by what was at first a random exposure to these things, then a deepening exposure brought on by the consequent synergy of increased visual acuity. In other words, some of these biogenic amines were conferring increased visual acuity, and this was shifting the reproductive mathematics in the direction of those individuals that were allowing this psychoactive substance (I mean, lets be frank about it) into the diet. Then, later, we saw that sexual arousal was also a concomitant to admitting this item into the diet and, at higher doses and deeper exposures, a deepening sense of what we can call without defining, the Other. The Other.


I read recently an interesting paper called The Felt Presence of the Other in Unusual Environments, and it was an article about the kind of hysteria which overtakes people lost in the wilderness. The sense that they are being stalked, or followed, or observed. And in its mildest form I’m sure we have all have experienced this: it’s the sense of being observed when you know you’re alone in the wilderness. We seem to be—you know, we have very strong fight-or-flight hardwiring in the organism. And we also, when we admit these biogenically active amines into the diet, we set ourselves up for a kind of undefined frontier between ourselves and the other.


Language took its place in that fissure and began to create the earliest images of the Other. But antecedent to the image is the feeling, and that was the point that I wanted to make: that in all cases, antecedent to the image is the feeling. The felt presence of immediate reality, which is the unique province of the individual. We choose to attempt to communicate it. But it is always and forever (by the nature of the situation) ours, and ours alone.


Well, the idea, then, that language is a double-edged adaptation that has both served us and betrayed us on different levels needs now to be looked at in the light of the fact that culture is more and more consciously becoming a project carried out in the domain of language—by, for instance, propagandists both governmental and commercial. Reality is more and more in the image. And when we talked about virtual realities, and the tendency of technology to create the dream utopias of the unconscious prehistory and shamanism, you see that what is happening is: we are, as a global culture, abandoning ourselves, in a way, to the image, because nothing else can be done. There aren’t enough resources, there are not enough metals in the planet, to give everyone the kind of standard of living that is enjoyed by the technocratic elites in the West. So instead there has to be this trade-off in image.


Now, this is not something new. We see it reflected in American life over the whole postwar era. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in order to make good on the grand promise that was to accrue to the American middle class consequent upon the defeat of fascism this utopia that was to come to be—for it to happen it was done tackily. That was the price that was paid. You know, Erich Jantsch said: the question regarding space colonies is not is it possible?, but how will we keep it in good taste? And this was a question that was not answered by American culture in the fifties. It was essentially a suburban, modular housing, modular products, modular values, modular lifestyle paradise that was sold as a the consequences of the completion of the American dream.


Part of what we have been living through this period is a hallucination of improper language. I mean, now, because of the changes going on in the Soviet Union, the fiction of this implacable enemy bent on putting a tank on every street corner in the world is now exposed as a cultural illusion, a fiction. And I’m not entirely persuaded that it was simply all a horrible misunderstanding. It seems to me these illusions played very strongly into the hands of different factions on both sides. Political realism is also a coming-to-grips with language. You know, the French sociologist Jacques Ellul said: there are no political solutions, there are only technological ones. The rest is propaganda. Well this, you know, people howl to the high heavens.


But in fact ideology (which is a kind of street corner form of metaphysics) has been just a pervasive cancer on the Western mind ever since the burning of Eleusis. I mean, we just can’t get enough of it. You know, we may look with horror on the funeral of the Imam, but believe me, in the history of Western civilization there have been scenes go down that make that look like child’s play. Recall to you, just as an example, the Albigensian Crusade when, in order to stamp out a heresy, the inquisition was turned loose in southern France, and the professional killer who was put in charge of this operation was a career man named Simon de Montfort. And his lieutenants came to him at one point in this campaign and said, “We have the city surrounded. We are laying siege to”—I believe it was Carcassonne— and they said, “But there are 7,000 Catholics within the walls.” He said, “Kill everybody. God will recognize his own.” So, you know, the twentieth century has not cornered the market on the ways in which language can distort and is used for political purposes to distort reality.


A very poignant example of that that I’ve personally had to deal with is: a lot of my work in the Amazon has been in an area of the Colombian Amazon called the Lower Putumayo. And I venture very few people here this afternoon have any association to the lower Putumayo, but in fact, British banks—with the collusion of Peruvian ruling families in the early years of this century—created a mini holocaust in the Peruvian (it was then Peru) the Peruvian Amazon in the pursuit of rubber. And what this was about was going in to these tribal areas and showing these people how to collect wild rubber, and then telling them, you know, you bring in this much, the first time you don’t bring in this much, we remove the soles of your feet with a machete. The second time you don’t bring in this much, we kill you. And 45,000 Indians were exterminated in the Colombian Putumayo. Going there years after this atrocity, I was amazed to see the lingering effects of the misuse of language. The Colombians, who were not politically associated with this—later in the thirties it was ceded to Peru—referred to it as it the devil’s paradise.


And the idea is that savages—note this word, “savages”—are savage, and therefore we must be more savage. In other words, preliterate culture is taken as an excuse for the rise of the beast in the colonizer. And how this trick is done is through the misuse and abuse of language, where “civilization” is what is being brought to these people, even though what appears to be being brought to them is the institution of prostitution, social diseases, slavery, madness, and death. But in fact, no, that isn’t it. It’s civilization! It’s a set of reasonable values. Well, the consequences of working out the “reasonable” values that were exported into the colonial world throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the consequence of that is the appalling contradiction presented by modernity, where the major portion of real wealth of great nations is shoveled into a standing crop of weaponry which had better never be used, because if it is used, it spells Armageddon. If it’s not used, it’s simply the worst investment anybody ever dreamed up. So this kind of betrayal of language and use of scapegoats—see, that’s what was happening with the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union—the scapegoat, the godless communist. It’s what was happening in the Putumayo between the rubber barons and the Indians they were exploiting. They thought they were civilizing them.


So the imaging of the world gives permission for various kinds of relationships to it, and people never question. You know, once they pledge allegiance to a given linguistic model of reality, then that absolves all necessity for further thought. This is what Goebbels understood so perfectly: you repeat and you repeat and you repeat, and then, when people ask themselves in the privacy of their own mind the moral question, your answer is on the surface waiting to be heard. Goebbels was the first person to create a system where, sitting in an office in Berlin, he could throw a switch and speak to the German people.


And McLuhan talked a lot about this: the notion of the creation of the public. What is the public? It’s something that comes out of print culture. It’s post-medieval. It’s a phenomenon that can only exist in the presence of newspapers, esentially. That’s what gave it its boost. And the public is a very different thing from the democratic notion of the people. Because the public is this body of “informed opinion.” But this informed opinion is tremendously subject to whim, pressure, propaganda, and distortion. I mean, I don’t know how many of you have been following, because we’re so isolated here, but what is going on in China is right now totally Orwellian. Films are being watched in darkened rooms, people identified, located, dragged forward, forced to recant whatever accounts they gave of the violence. These film clips are being shown side by side on the evening news where, three weeks ago, we were hearing that the army would never attack the beloved students. Now the army is patriotically rounding up dissidents, hooligans, bandit elements, and those who would destroy the compact between the party and the people. This is just a shift in language.


Remember the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four where the party hack is giving the speech, and midway through the speech he’s handed a telegram on the podium that tells him that the enemy has changed: it’s no longer Oceania. They’ve made peace with Oceania and begun bombing Eurasia, the other state. And in mid-stride—he doesn’t even have to end a paragraph—he can just turn the language and plow off in another direction.


Well, is there any cure for this, or are we simply the prisoners, each of us in our own way, of people smarter than ourselves? Well, not really, I think. Because outside the domain of language is some kind of domain of authentic feeling. We have thousands of words for technological processes, widgets, and what have you. Our vocabulary of feeling comprises about ten words—you know: love, hate, disgust, revulsion, obsession, like that. Yet, in the same way that we are capable of this very intensely modulated brain state that translates itself into small mouth noises, we need to be aware of an internal horizon of self-perception that is extremely rich and complicated, and shifting all the time.


Now, that’s who we actually are. That is not the top-down values of the culture that we wear like clothing. That’s who we are. This is what McLuhan said when he said we wear culture like an overcoat. It’s something sold to us. You go out and buy it, and you try it on. If Time Magazine doesn’t fit you, maybe The Economist will. If neither fits, well, try the Journal of Foreign Affairs. You’ll find an overcoat that fits, and then that will become part of your culture. I saw the cartoon in the New Yorker last night: the well-dressed man and his wife leaving a party, and he’s saying to her, “How can we relate to people who belong to the book of the month club?” You know? These are strong cultural disparities.


So to overcome culture, really—which I view as provisional and semi-toxic—there has to be a way back to bedrock, to something that is satisfyingly transcendental in an immediate sense. In an immediate sense. So it cannot be a philosophy, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe philosophies work for the more rarefied among us, and they have the consolation of, I don’t know, Episcopalianism, Orthodox Judaism, Logical Positivism, whatever trip they’ve got running. But I’ve always found philosophy to be recreational, and won’t really serve. Well, so then: what is there?


First of all, there is nature. Nature, silently attended, is still a modality that is beyond the reach of the language of most of us, and of those of us who need it most fortuitously. Because we have the smallest vocabulary for its description. So when we go into nature, it’s a flirtation with a kind of iridescence. It’s a search for—I mean, I blush to use such a word, but—a lost innocence which most of us associate with childhood. Some of us had terrible childhoods, so we just associate it with the lost paradise of Eden or a utopia. But in nature there is an implicate order. There is the bedrock out of which the human iridescence springs.


And human culture is an extremely evanescent, transitory, and non-equilibrium kind of condition. I mean, the pulse beat of this planet is measured in millions of years. Culture is a phenomenon of the last 40,000 years—and that’s generous. So culture has about it this miraculous, instantaneous, and almost intrusive quality against the background of the rest of the body of nature.


But going into nature is not simply a prescription for joining the Sierra Club. What going into nature means is: taking seriously the alchemical faith that preceded the positivist flowering of science and looking into the heart of matter with the expectation of encountering a mystery. Now, in the most practical sense, what this has to mean is the psychedelic experience; hallucinogenic plants. It cannot mean anything else. Now, of course, we’re in the slightly uncomfortable position of having that be illegal. But that in itself should be a sufficient indication for most people that something is going on. I mean, my take on legality is essentially that of Charles Dickens, who was sort of an Edwardian anarchist. And his famous throwaway line on that was: “The law is an ass.” And it’s sadly true in this case.


But I’m not really interested in it as a legal issue. I’m interested in it as a human rights issue, if you want to put it that way. In other words, my assumption is that, in the same way that the Western mind reached a certain place where it recognized that slavery—whether it made economic sense or not—was morally insupportable, and in the same way, then, that a universal right to own property (if you’ve got the money) has been more or less institutionalized, and the oppression of women is now recognized as a kind of self-defeating strategy of male dominance—in the same way that these things have been signposts in the continuing history of human self-definition, so shall be the understanding that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the age of modern pharmacology has to mean the right to control your own state of mind subject to the constraints of time, place, and manner, so forth and so on.


So that’s enough about the sociopolitical end of it. What is more interesting is the thing in itself: what it is. That it is something which our cultural biases—reaching clear back to the phonetic alphabet, and to the fear that societies run along the lines of male dominance—have of boundary dissolution. I mean, for a thousand years in western civilization, the only boundary dissolution that was socially sanctioned was getting plastered. And that appears to have been specifically for the purpose of getting laid. I mean, as far as research can tell us, for a thousand years nobody got laid who wasn’t stone drunk, because everyone was such a paragon of social rectitude. Well, I mean, it’s truer than you think. Alcohol is clearly a medium for permission in a Calvinist milieu.


Well, I could talk about this in all kinds of different ways. It’s very interesting. I talked about scapegoats, and I talked about the misuse of language. I suppose, since I got that deep into it, I might as well say what I’m thinking, which is that the drug issue now looms as an obvious new horror. I mean, it has all the trappings of the Communist under the bed. I mean, I have not yet heard crack cocaine referred to as godless, but any day I think the connection will be made that this is a godless drug. The problem here is, again, a problem of language. We have one concept: “drug.” It moves from aspirin to heroin, through LSD, and on into television. These things can all be spoken of as drugs. So then, what this means immediately is: somebody has stacked the rhetorical deck against a reasonable discussion of the matter because our vocabulary is so impoverished. I mean, are we to believe that we need the same policy for television as we need for heroin? Are we to believe that psychedelic psychotherapy is to be treated with the same hand that resolves the crack cocaine issue? So while the government squawks education, no education is taking place. Rather, what is taking place is a poisoning of the linguistic domain in which we will then be expected to forge a solution.


So what I’ve tried to say on this issue—and some of you who saw this month’s Mother Jones may have noticed that they put me in there; more picture than text, which tells you something about an age of symbols—but what I’ve tried to say is that we need to define drugs operationally. We need to say what it is we don’t like, and then we need to find out what it is that does what we don’t like.


Okay, what is it we don’t like? I submit to you that what we don’t like about drugs is unexamined, obsessive, and habitual behavior. Unexamined, obsessive, habitual behavior—meaning, you know, somebody’s into something, and by god, if you get in their way when they’re on their way to it, you’re in trouble. They do not question their obsession, they indulge their obsession, and they will tolerate no discussion of it. So unexamined, habitual, obsessive behavior is extremely objectionable to all of us, I think. I mean, we call anything that we don’t like, we call it robot-like, automaton, unthinking, zombie, so forth and so on.


Well, imagine if our partners in the new global materialism—the Japanese—had introduced into this country at the end of World War II a drug which, within a few years, made such deep inroads into the American population that people were spending an average of five hours a day loaded on this drug. What would we think? We would think that it was a crime against a culture on the scale of Auschwitz. But, as a matter of fact, we did this to ourselves. Television—introduced at the close of World War II—has become a form of electronic heroin. And it isn’t even your trip! They don’t even let you go on your own trip. You get a trip designed on Madison Avenue to sell this year’s model of the crapmobile, or whatever else is being pushed. So, unquestioningly—and even as I speak I’m sure there are people in this audience who are revolted at my lack of patriotism and love for an American institution of such nobility and depth as TV. Well, you know where I pulled back from TV? Really pulled back from it? It was when I made a mild knock on TV, and someone in the audience said, “Well, you can say anything you want about television, but you must admit that it’s given our children a wonderful education concerning nature.”


Anyway. Pursuing the theme of operationally defining drugs to give us a little more linguistic scope, psychedelics—in contrast to television and heroin—dissolve habitual patterns of activity, and promote examination of motives, and allow a restructuring of habit. Before LSD was made illegal back in the sixties, very respectable psychologists such as Humphry Osmond and Hoffer were obtaining a 40% cure rate of chronic alcoholism with one high-dose exposure. Well now, understand: this doesn’t mean that LSD is a cure for alcoholism. I mean, if you think that, you don’t know anything about how drugs work. That 40% cure on one high-dose exposure to LSD of alcoholism means that this person took this psychedelic, it dissolved their boundaries, it dissolved their defenses, they came face to face with the fact that they were killing themselves, and when they came down they reached into their bowels and found enough intestinal fortitude to chop it off. Well, this is the dream of all other therapies!


Now, AA achieves this, but at the cost of closing the mind. A truly devoted graduate of AA does not have an open mind on the drug issue, because they have been taught that opening your mind even a little bit may lead you back to the bottle. Well, they’re trying to solve a personal dilemma in a context of neurosis. I’m sympathetic to that, but in the meantime the rest of us have to try to make sense of these extremely complex issues. Because the transcendent—which is what we cannot seem to find, and what we are strangling for want of—lies precisely in the direction of this forbidden domain. What are we going to do about it?


In other words, authentic boundary-dissolving internal hierophony does, in fact, reliably occur in the presence of these plants and compounds. But nobody knows what to do about it. We have become so accustomed to seeking the answer that, even as a community, we have a lot of trouble figuring out how you just face the answer, how you come to terms with the options that are actually available.


Well, I’ve talked about it today in a slightly more political context, because when you hang out at the baths with the state department people, it’s just like a virus in the watter. I mean, you find yourself raving about triage, Saudi uprisings, infrastructures. There’s just no cure for it


Are there questions? Yes?





So the question is about sexuality and the relationship of sex to drugs. Tim Leary, he made a great case for sex and psychedelics. Every time they would say that LSD breaks chromosomes, he would say that they it causes orgasms that last—and he would add a greater increment of time as the propaganda war required to hold the numbers steady on both sides. Certainly, sex under psychedelics is quite astonishing, although psychedelics without sex is so astonishing, it’s… it’s, you know, perhaps an embarrassment of riches to pile it on.


The analogy between sex and psychedelics that I think is the cogent one is: very few people go through life without ever brushing up against sexuality. I mean, you have to have truly bizarre biography for it to never come and get you. On the other hand, it is not only possible, but millions and millions of people do go from the cradle to the grave without ever having a psychedelic experience. Well, to my mind, this is just an instance of an appalling infantilism that is culturally sanctioned. I mean, the culture not only doesn’t care if you never find out about this and remain forever immature—virgin, good word. This society, not only does it not care, it’s specifically interested in seeing that you don’t have this experience. Well, it’s part of the birthright. This is what religion was for the first million years before it fell into the hands of men who insist on wearing dresses. You know? It was the celebration of an ecstatic reality that could be coaxed out of a magical relationship with nature.


And it’s still there. The portals are still there. Your RS232 outlet into hyperspace is still in place, even though nobody may have plugged in in your family line since Alaric burned Eleusis. Nevertheless, the hardwiring is there; the self-recognition. We are children without this—and not in the sense of innocent, but in the sense of infantile. Because this is part of the birthright. How can anyone else decide for someone else that access to the trancendental reality shall be barred? I mean, if somebody somewhere in the world puts a lien on a religion, people are waving their arms in outrage. This is deemed to be one of the most fundamental kinds of interference with the dignity of the individual. Well, but if your religion involves the practical accessing of the trans-mundane through means sanctioned by millennia of usage—I mean, I’m not an advocate for everything that rolls out of the laboratory. I’m an advocate for things sanctioned by millennia of usage. And to have a profane government interpose itself between you and that reality—why, it’s ludicrous. You just have to read your Thoreau to know what you do in that case. And if you don’t have time for Thoreau, I’ll tell you: you just ignore it. It’s a bunch of baloney. That’s a completely out-of-hand move on the part of the oppressor-dominator mentality.So sex took me on a trip there, but I hope you liked the first part of the answer.






We can’t all be Stanley, you know? We can’t all be Alfred Russel Wallace, we can’t all be Björn Borg. So people opt for vicarious sensation. I don’t know where this is going, because the technologies to carry it a great distance are far advanced. This comes to a very interesting question, which boils down to (in its most cogent form) the question: “Is Man good?” or “What is Man?” Because what we appear to be moving toward is a technological domain where we will be able to be whatever we want to be. And it’s a litmus test for what we want to be. If you could be whatever you wanted to be, would you watch XXX-rated movies every waking moment? How many people would? This is the great fear that the dominators have about the drugs. Their position is: if drugs were legal, everybody would be a junkie—a cheerful view of human nature, you know? They’re saying: “You want to legalize these things? Don’t you understand what it would be like?”


Well, I—as a user of drugs—am insulted by the implication. The government has never been a major factor in the decisions I made about my program of ingestion. And I think that it’s preposterous to suggest that the moral rectitude of the government stands between a dope-crazed population and the object of its fondest desires. I think it’s all in language. If a gram cocaine cost what a tube of airplane glue costs, you know, you don’t see a lot of gentlemen with neatly-trimmed gray beards driving Porsches with airplane glue in their fur. It just doesn’t happen, because it’s tacky. It’s tasteless. Drugs are very subject to the images in language.


One of the funny things that goes on—it may have changed now—but the last time I was in the lowland Amazon, they grow coca. But it’s not part of the huge criminal syndicates that grow the highland coca, which is much stronger. So we go up these rivers, hundreds of miles up these jungle rivers, and people are growing coca, and they invite you to chew coca with them. And the moment there is any rapport established, they want to go on this rap about how: “This is not a drug! I know you think this is a drug. This is not a drug. This is a food! This is making us strong. This allows us to work. Without this we would be nothing.” Well, what he’s saying is: adopt my language so that you can see this reality as we see it. An in fact they’re quite right. I mean, you can chew coca for weeks on end, and when you leave the Amazon and fly home it’s no big deal.


The most virulent family of addicting drugs is always presented—I mean, crack has changed it a little—but the classic, virulent, addicting drugs are the opiates. Well, opium was known for 3,000 years before anyone noticed that it was addicting. The earliest known account of addiction is in 1603: William Playfair. So for thousands of years opium had been used and not been recognized as addictive. Now, you know, you have millions of people running around thinking that if they get within several feet of it, Satan will sink his claws into them. This is all a grand silliness—and not that heroin addiction is not a problem, I don’t want to imply that. But what I’m trying to say is: the way we see these things, the way we image them, is what gives them their power.

Does that do it for you? Other comments?





No, because opium really isn’t terribly addictive. I mean, the only time in history that opium was turned into a social problem was in the nineteenth century. Yes, just to review your history for you for a moment: in the 1840s, a series of international incidents went on in the Far East that have come to be called the opium war. Well, what was the opium war about? The British East India Company—which was nothing more than the profit-making arm of British imperialism—the British East India Company had created a huge distribution system for tea. Tea was grown in Ceylon, and they had very advanced ships for that time (over 200 of them), and they had facilities from [???] and [???], and all of this was maintained at great expense for the tea trade. Well, they were so efficient at producing tea that they created an economic collapse of tea around 1840. So the board of directors of the British East India Company got together and they said, “We have all these ships. Tea is worth nothing. What are we going to do?” And then someone said, “Well, why don’t we grow opium in Goa,” which is in India, south of Bombay on the west coast of India, “Why don’t we grow opium in [Goa], and we’ll sell it in China?” And they said, “Well, that’s a good idea. What does the Chinese government think about this?” So they inquired, and the Chinese government told them to get lost, that they weren’t interested in having raw opium sold at dockside by British traders in Chinese cities. Well, they went back to the foreign office, and the wheels turned, and gunboat diplomacy was used to force the Chinese to open their doors to opium. Opium had been known in China for thousands of years as an obscure item in the materia medica. But it had never been a social vice. From 1840 on, tens of thousands of tons of opium at rock-bottom prices were unloaded, produced by Indian cheap labor at immense profit to the East India Company, and unloaded in China.


So we think that this stance of being the keeper of moral values that is effected by government in the so-called drug war is just another convenient foil. Because when it suits government’s purpose, it deals dope. Certainly the cocaine trade could only exist with the connivance of the Central Intelligence Agency. If you don’t believe that, you don’t understand how it works out there, because it’s just as plain as the nose on your face. I mean, where do you get a half billion dollars in a hurry if you’ve got to outfit a rebel army and topple a democratic socialist government somewhere? Well, the only place you get a half a billion dollars—or a hundred million, even—in a hurry is: you take a flyer on drugs. The original cocaine epidemic was practically promoted by the media because coke was thought to be this rather fashionable little upper—it wasn’t until people had been doing it for five and six years and exhibiting signs of madness, breakdown, and physical dissolution of the middle of their face that people began to catch on that it’s not such a good thing. And then, of course, crack cocaine—that was not hatched by the agency, that was just the perverseness of human ingenuity that could take a problem and turn it into a real problem.


Remember the great heroin epidemics of the past, after the Vietnam War? Well, you should look at the police statistics on crack. Looking at the statistics as they now stand, it’s like there were no drugs before crack. Crime levels were so low relative to what they are now; burglaries, assaults were so rare. And yet, when those events were going on—the great heroin epidemic of the 1970s and so forth—we were asked to believe that society was being ripped apart at the seams. So it’s all very relative and it’s all according to who it serves.





How do you choose a drug? Is that what you’re saying? No, what I would say is there are three criteria to consider when you’re thinking about drugs: does it have an affinity to ordinary brain chemistry? In other words, you don’t want it to be invasive, you don’t want it to insult the brain. You don’t want to insult the brain physically with a toxin. Well, how do you tell? Well, a very good way to tell is to ask the question: how long does a drug last? A drug that lasts fourteen hours is clearly more invasive and more toxic than a drug that lasts two hours. Because what this turnaround time to get back to the baseline of consciousness is an indicator of is how much affinity enzyme systems already present in the brain have for the incoming substance, and to what degree they recognize it, can deaminate it, dealkylate it, and turn it into harmless and excretable byproducts. So you want a drug that very quickly returns you to the baseline of consciousness, and there should be no hangover, no residuum. This is why alcohol is obviously—you know, people feel like danced on something or other the next day. Because this is a systemic poison, you know? And so that’s the first criteria: how close an affinity to neurotransmitters and neuroregulators does it have?


Another consideration is: is it synthetic or natural? Now, people argue with this one, because people are—in my humble opinion—quite lumpen about granting a distinction between the synthetic and the natural. I mean, they just say we’re natural, so anything that comes out of the lab, that ought to be natural too. Well, would you mainline plutonium? I don’t think so. So why I—I’ll make the argument for natural substances on two levels, one fairly rational, which is that a substance that occurs in plants has been use-tested in living systems for millions and millions of years. It is a constituent of organic life. The proof of that is that it is present there. So that alone argues that it has a certain affinity that places it above a synthetic.


The more airy-fairy of my metaphors on this issue is that I think I really, especially in this area, give great credit to Rupert Sheldrake and his idea of the morphogenetic field. I really think that—let’s contrast two drugs: a synthetic drug like ketamine (a pseudo-hallucinogen) and a indole hallucinogen (a true hallucinogen) like psilocybin. Well, psilocybin has been taken for thousands and thousands of years by tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. It has a morphogenetic field. And, in a way, when you take a drug, the drug takes you. I mean, the drug is opening, and you are opening, and there is a dimension of recognition about which it’s rather difficult to say very much.


And the third criteria in thinking about the possibility of substances as a tool for spiritual growth is: does it have a history of human usage? Does it have a long history of human usage? That’s, in a way, the most important of all. No synthetic has a long history of human usage, and most things with a long history of human usage will turn out to come from a plant. So what you need is—you know, all these people who went before, they proved that substances like psilocybin, ibogaine, harmaline, mescaline, the experience of the human community over time proves that these things do not cause birth defects, miscarriages, tumors, blindness, madness, ulcers, so forth and so on. In other words, since we are not allowed to legally investigate anything, since we’re not allowed protocols for human investigation of anything old or new, then really the only human data available is ethnographic data: data on obscure Amazonian tribes and rituals conducted in the Mexican highlands.


Well, to my mind it isn’t—I’m not an advocate of drugs, I’m an advocate of psychedelics. Drugs that are not psychedelic interest me approximately as much as I assume they interest everybody else. I mean, I sometimes do them. Certain ones I abuse—caffeine most notably. I can’t abuse alcohol because I’m migraineer. But the psychedelic thing is a special category and a special political issue. I read a book recently—I mentioned this to some of you—by Arnold Trebech [?], who is one of these thin-tank east coast type policy-formulating consultant to the government type characters, and clearly a good guy on our side, advocating legalization and meeting the objections to the legalization of hard narcotics with a number of interesting arguments. The book is like over 600 pages long. Well, when you look in the index, there’s nothing about LSD, nothing about psychedelics, nothing about MDMA, psilocybin, DMT, BPT, ibogaine, STP. None of this. Apparently they’re choosing to pretend that the issue of psychedelic therapy and the issue of the spiritual dimension that is accessible through plant chemistry—it’s too much, even, for the liberals to handle. They don’t even want to talk about it. They want to reluctantly announce that they have lost the war on drugs, and then, with great handwringing, legalize these things with the sense that now this surely will trigger the end of western civilization as we know it. There is no sense of a dimension of hope, opportunity, clinical breakthrough—nothing like that.






Yes, the question is language and the fact that how does what I said about language relate to what I’ve said previously about the DMT state? Why is it that some people come back speechless from these dimensions? I’m glad you asked this question—probably not because I’m going to answer it, but because it reminds me of something. In a way, it’s answering. I see language as an uncompleted program. Language is something which wants to be beheld, but is only heard, and so there is this tension. You recall I said a few days ago that, after many grapplings with the DMT ecstasis that I had the feeling that the place you break into there is a playpen. It’s an environment created by someone very strange, who has a very curious notion of human psychology, and it is an environment that they imagine would be reassuring to human beings. And I’ve stuck with this model for many, many years: the model of the playpen, and that the self-transforming elf machine entities were like toys. They were like attention-grabbing, colorful teaching devices to engage the attention of the human being that has just come across.


Well, strange to say, the other night I was thinking about all of this, and a little piece was added. And I’ll try it out on you. I tried it out on somebody who’s quite sophisticated about DMT, and they said, “That’s absolutely wrong. That is not what it is.” But, undaunted, I’ll try it out on you. As you go into the DMT state there is this question about the intent of these machine elves. They’re funny, they’re zany, but—you know how the Three Stooges cartoons operate? Where there’s a lot of finger in the eye and mallet on the head stuff? So, in this DMT place there is this mad zaniness, this sense of a Bugs Bunny cartoon run amok kind of thing. And people who’ve had this experience say, “Well, you can’t trust these little guys,” or, “You have to be on your toes. These are magical entities. These are not love bunnies. They’re little gome tending toward demon, and you don’t know where to draw the line.”


So, thinking about this the other night, I tried to construct emotionally for myself a picture of a human situation that would give me the same feeling about what was going on as I have when I deal with the entities in the DMT thing. And it came to me instantly what it was, and what the missing ambiance of it is that I’ve never included in a lecture. What’s going on, I’m sure, is that the aura of these little guys is that they’re sharp. They’re sharp. They’re funny, they’re zany, but they’re sharp. And I think what they are is: they’re traders. And the whole funny emotion that invades the DMT exchange has to do with the possibility of getting screwed. Not getting killed, not being driven mad, but being taken. Being taken, quite literally. And these toys which they offer are trade goods, in effect. And what they are saying in that place is, “What have you got? What have you got? Look at this, look at this. What did you bring? What do you have to trade?” Well, the opening lasts only a few minutes, and as the dialogue is getting started the dimension closes upon itself.


But this is, I think, the lost piece of the puzzle. This realization about the trader cast a funny light on an incident which I will tell, and that will be it for today. It’s an example about communication from other dimensions and how it works. It’s a story that I’ve told before, but I still get a kick out of it. I was in Los Angeles, having dinner at a not terribly fancy restaurant, but a neighborhood restaurant in Malibu with a bunch of people, among them my friend Ralph Abraham, and also among them a women, a French movie producer. And we had been earlier at someone’s house talking about psychedelics and mushrooms and what I did and what my rap was. And so we were seated at this big table, about ten of us, and this woman was at my elbow. And she said, “You say that the mushroom speaks, but I do not understand this ‘speak.’ What does it mean?” And I said, “Well, the mushroom has many personalities.” Sometimes it has a very—it sort of presents itself like a pawn broker. I said, “You know that role that Rod Steiger played in the movie of that name? That irascible kind of personality is a personality of the mushroom.” And she said, “Ah!” And at that precise moment Steiger stopped by the table to shake hands with everybody. I mean, at so immediately thereafter that I was horified that he had heard me make this reference to him.


Well, so I was just… you know? And Ralph, who was sitting across the table and saw this whole thing go on, leaned across the table and said, “You see? The mushroom is showing you that it can touch you anytime, anyplace, in ways that you could ever imagine.”

That’s all, folks!

Terence McKenna

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