The Psychedelic Society

February 1984

One of Terence’s early presentations at Esalen—shocking, astounding, and amusing his audience with outlandish ideas.




And I want to thank all the women who support me. I have wonderful support systems from women of all types who seem dedicated to the notion that Terence McKenna can always be improved! I’m extremely grateful for that. The frontiers are enormous in that dimension.


Okay. What I want to talk about tonight is the notion, or the idea, of a psychedelic society. When I spoke at Santa Barbara at the Psychedelics Conference—whenever it was, last May a year ago—my contact lenses failed me at a critical point in my lecture, and I simply had to wing it. And later, when I played this tape back, I heard this phrase “psychedelic society,” and I had never used it consciously in a lecture. But because I had said it, and because there had been a ripple of resonance to it from the crowd of people there, I began to think about it. And this evening I will just generally assess what it might mean for us.


I’m definitely a pioneer in this field. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the book Megatrends, which is making quite an impression at the moment. Well, Megatrends nowhere mentions the imminent transformation of human society through the application of psychedelic drugs. I don’t know what were they thinking! What I think a psychedelic society—what that notion means or implies to me in terms of ideology—is the idea of creating a society which always lives in the light of the mystery of being. In other words, that solutions should be displaced from the central role that they have had in social organization, and mysteries—irreducible mysteries—should be put in their place.


The British enzymologist J. B. S. Haldane, in the 1920s, in an essay, said, “The universe may not only be stranger than we suppose, it may be stranger than we can suppose.” And I suggest to you that, as we look back over human history, every pinnacle of civilization—whether it be Mayan or Greco-Roman or Song dynasty—has believed that it was in possession of an accurate description of the cosmos and of man’s relationship to it. This seems to go along with the full flowering of a civilization. But from the point of view of our present civilization, we regard all those conceptions as, at worst, quaint, at best, half right, and congratulate ourselves that our civilization, at last, has its finger on the real description of what is going on. But I think that this is not true, and that actually what blinds us or what makes historical progress very difficult is our lack of awareness of our ignorance, and that beliefs should be put aside, and that a psychedelic society would abandon belief systems for direct experience.


And this is, I think, much a problem of the modern dilemma—is that direct experience has been discounted, and in its place all kinds of belief systems have been erected. I would prefer a kind of intellectual anarchy, where whatever was pragmatically applicable was brought to bear on any situation, but where belief was understood as a self-limiting function. Because, you see, if you believe something, you’re automatically precluded from believing its opposite—which means that a degree of your human freedom has been forfeited in the act of committing yourself to this belief. And I maintain that it’s pointless to have beliefs, in a sense, because the universe really is stranger than we suppose. And what we need is a return to what in the sixteenth century was called Baconian method, which means not the elaboration of fantastic thought constructs which explain, but merely a phenomenological cataloguing of what we experience. Computer networks and psychedelic drugs and the increased availability of information in the world have actually made possible the evolution of new alien information states which never existed before. And we are processing these things—but at a very slow rate, because we are hindered by ideology.


Now, I mentioned in an earlier workshop this afternoon that Freudian models, Jungian models, of the psychedelic experience—which saw it as somehow as stripping away of resistance and a revealing of complex and hidden emotions and motives and belief systems—has been replaced in the last five to ten years with the shamanic model of hallucinogenic and shamanic experience. This model holds that archaic peoples have deputized special people to probe hidden information fields using psychedelic drugs, and that the information extracted from these information fields is then used to guide and direct the society.


Now, I’m interested in this second model, and spent time in the Amazon, and am familiar with the operational mechanics of shamanism and shamanic personalities, and that sort of thing. But I believe, actually, that the psychedelic experience looms larger than the institution of shamanism, and that we hold a unique opportunity, which is sort of the flipside of the culture crisis. Our ability to destroy ourselves is the mirror image of our ability to save ourselves. And what is lacking is a clear vision of what should be done. What should be done is certainly not the accumulation of ever-larger nuclear arsenals and the promotion of all kinds of primate game-playing of the sort that Tim Leary is well versed in denouncing. What needs to be done is that fundamental ontological conceptions about reality have to be remade. We need a new language. And in order to have a new language we must have a new reality. It’s almost a kind of ouroboric equation, or a bootstrap situation: a new reality will generate a new language. A new language will fix a new reality and make it part of this reality.


These psychedelic drugs can be conceived of as points on an informational grid. They provide new perspectives on reality. And it is when you connect all the points of perspective that you have on reality that a reasonably applicable model of it begins to appear. And I think this reasonably applicable model—what Wittgenstein called “something which is true enough”—is what we’re looking for. The true enough mapping of experience onto theory is what we’re looking for. But experience must be made primary. The language of the self must be made primary. And anarchy carries this responsibility, even when it’s only political anarchy.


What I’m advocating is that we each take responsibility for the cultural transformation by realizing that it is not something which will be disseminated from the top down, it is something which each of us can contribute to by attempting to live as far into the future as possible. You know, we must get rid of the conceptions of the forties, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. We must smear the historical moment and become exemplars of the humanity of the end time.


And those of you who attended my lecture this afternoon about time know that I believe that liberation—or let’s even say decency—as a human quality is an actual resonance and anticipation of this future perfected state of humanity. We can will the perfect future into being by becoming microcosms of the perfect future, and no longer casting blame outward on institutions or hierarchies of responsibility and control, but by realizing that the opportunity is here, the responsibility is here, and the two may never be congruent again, and the salvation of your immortal soul may depend on what you do with the opportunity.






So what do you do with the opportunity? What does it mean to say, in operational terms, “live as far into the future as you can live?” It means taking a position vis-à-vis this emergent hyper-dimensional reality. It does not necessarily mean becoming a psychedelic drug user yourself, but it means admitting to yourself the possibility. And if you feel the heroic potential within yourself to be one of the experiencers, one of the pioneers, then you know what to do. If, on the other hand, you fear to be lost in the abyss—you fear what William Blake called falling into eternal death; falling from the spiral of being which connects one reincarnation to another, and falling into the realm of eternal death—then you orient yourself towards the psychedelic experience, towards the psychedelic phenomenon, as a source of information.


A mirror image of the psychedelic experience in hardware are computer networks. Computer networks, paradoxically enough, are a deeply feminizing influence on society where, in hardware, the unconscious is actually being created. It’s as though we took the Platonic bon mot about how, if god did not exist, man would invent him, and say: if the unconscious does not exist, humanity would invent it in the form of these vast networks able to transfer and transform information. This is, in fact, what we are caught up in—is a transforming of information.


We have not physically changed in the last 40,000 years. The human type was established at the end of the last glaciation. But change which was previously operable in the biological realm is now operable in the realm of culture. And we are shedding cultural adumbrations of our vision of the unitary mystery at a faster and faster rate as we try to accommodate ourselves and mirror ourselves to the mystery which lies ahead of us in time, and which is throwing this vast shadow of fatedness back over the entire experience of human history for everyone who has lived in it. And, previous to our own era, the only control language which could be applied to this thing—which was bringing people together and causing birth and death and tearing down and erecting civilizations—was god. And it was imagined as a self-conscious force that was leaning into the world like a cat into a fishbowl, and making things happen.


Now we have a different notion—a notion of a vector system where forces over a large area are oriented toward a very small space. And this is what history is: it’s an in-rushing toward what the Buddhists call the realm of the densely packed; a transformational realm where the opposites are unified. And the way I characterize this union of opposites is to say: it is that realm where the body is finally interiorized, the mind is finally exteriorized.


The way I think of the mind is as a fourth-dimensional organ of your body. You can’t see it because it’s in the fourth dimension, but you experience a sectioning of it in the phenomenon of consciousness. But that is only a partial sectioning of it—the way a plane gives a partial picture of a cone when it truncates it.


The growth of information systems is only a mirroring in masculine hardware of what already exists in nature as a fact. And it is up to us to hone our intuitions and to become aware of this preexistent system of communication and wiring, so that we can step away from the dualisms which separate us from each other and from the world. We need to realize that there is a gene swarm (not a set of species) on the Earth, that half the time when you think you are thinking, you are actually listening, and that ideas are remarkably slippery things and are very difficult to trace to their origins, and that we really are one-on-one and altogether in a dimension that is not as accessible as you “might wish to be congealed,” as Finnegan’s Wake says.


The psychedelics are a red-hot social issue—social issue, ethical issue… whatever the term for it is—and it is precisely because they are deconditioning agents. They will cast doubt in you if you are a Hasidic rabbi, a Marxist anthropologist, or an altar boy, because their business is to dissolve belief systems. And they do this very well, and then they leave you with the raw datum of experience—what William James called (in talking of infants) “a blooming buzzing confusion” is what they leave you with—the raw datum of experience. And out of that you reconstruct a world. And you need to understand that it is a dialogue where your decisions, the projection of your grammar onto the intellectual space in front of you, is going to gel into a mode of being. We actually all create our own universe, because we are all operating with our own private languages, which are only very crudely translatable into any other person’s language.


There’s even a physical analogue to this, which will further reinforce this notion of alienation. It is that your picture of the world impinging on your eyes is made of photons. Photons are tiny wave packets, so closely circumscribed intergetically that they can be thought of as particles. That means that every single photon which falls on the back of my eye is different from every single photon which falls on the back of any one of your eyes. This means that I am using one hundred percent a different section of the world than any one of you is to get a picture of the world. And yet we are sitting here with the naïve assumption that our pictures of the world differ only by our perspective within the space of the room. And we have numerous extremely naïve assumptions like this built into our thinking. And our most venerable explanatory engines, such as science, happen also to be our oldest explanatory engines, and therefore they have built into them the most naïve and unexamined assumptions.


For instance, science: we can demolish it in thirty seconds. Science tells you that a set of conditions will create a given effect, and that every time that set of conditions is in place, that effect will be found to obtain. Well, the only place where this happens is in laboratories. In our experience it isn’t like that. A contact with a person is always different. The experience of making love, having a meal, riding a bus—these things are always different. It is their uniqueness, in fact, and a uniqueness that pervades all being, that makes it bearable at all. Yet science is willing to tell you that the only things worth describing are those phenomena that can be repeatedly triggered. This is because these are the only phenomena science can describe, and that’s the name of the game as far as they are concerned.


But we, to claim our freedom, to take advantage of the tiny moment between immense abysses of unknowability—perhaps death, perhaps other reincarnations, perhaps transitions into other life forms—these things we don’t know. But in the moment of being human we have a unique opportunity to figure things out. And I have the faith that it is possible sometime, somewhere to have a conversation—perhaps no progress would be made until the ninth hour—but to have a conversation in which reality could be literally pulled to pieces beyond the point of reconstructing.


I had a friend—I’m not sure that this is germane—but I had a friend back in the sixties who, one day on LSD, took a toothpick, and he sat for fourteen solid hours with the toothpick and a large red brick, and he demolished it. He reduced it to nothing with his toothpick, and his fingernail long after the toothpick was gone. And this is what we have to do to the ideological concrete in which we are set: we have to claim anarchy and realize that systems have a life of their own that is anti-humanist. There is definitely an anti-humanist tendency in all systems.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who was the inventor of general systems theory, said, “People are not machines. But in every situation where they are given the choice, they will behave like machines.” We all fall into patterns, we all then hold those patterns ever more tightly, they cannot be violated. And this happens on the thought level. And we are at the cresting wave of the historical wave of this kind of uptightness that stretches back millennia.


And I think that we have now come to the end of this phase. Whether you buy into my own peculiar apocalyptarian, transformative vision involving 2012, or whether you just can tell by looking around you that the shit may soon hit the fan, I think we can agree that we’ve come to some kind of a pass. And what is going to come out of it is either going to be a great deal of dislocation in the biosphere, the invalidation of intelligence as an adaption of biology, and our extinction, or we are going to become (as James Joyce dreamed we could) “man made dirigible,” is how he put it. In other words, the exteriorization of the soul, the interiorization of the body. And in this process everything is going to be challenged. The very notion of humanness is going to be challenged, because we are on the brink—through genetic manipulation of DNA—of actually taking control of the human form, of being able to extend the notion of art inward into the human body and form. Are we classicists? Shall we each be an Adonis and a Persephone? Or are we—what are we? Are we surrealists? Shall I be a potato and you a burning leopard? These are decisions which will have to be faced! These are the important questions.


And this vertical gain which we see in the metaphors that are applied to psychedelic drugs—consciousness expansion, getting high, psychedelic tripping, shamanic flight—all of these things are being paralleled. It’s like the drugs are the feminine, software, formative, leading edge of what is happening. Coming along behind that is the hardware, engineering, masculine mentality that is processing all this stuff into hardware. And this will continue until the leading edge outdistances the engineering mentality through breakthrough. And this is what I think the shamanic hope is: that we can find a way to use chemicals in our bodies, and our voices, and our thoughts, and our hands (upon ourselves and each other) to transform ourselves without technology, to move into the realm of the imagination on the natch, as it were, with an interiorized, psychopharmacologically applied technology that frees us in the imagination.


At the same time that this is going on, the engineering mentality is going to set human societies in orbit around the Earth and the Moon and the near planets. But there’s a catch here for the engineering mentality, which is that the very void which surrounds the planet exemplifies this enfolding, abyssal, feminine element. It is the mysterious mama matrix of Finnegan’s Wake. The mysterious mama matrix is the universe, and there is no escaping that fact. So that I think the engineering mentality, which will seek to change man into his machines, will have to be counterpoised by the psychedelic, Earth-oriented, imagination-oriented side of things, which will create, then, the potential for the spiritual marriage that will be the alchemical perfection of a new form of humanity.


And this is not far away. It can’t be far away. It must be now and soon. And it is, as I said, a personal responsibility incumbent upon all of us to act. There is definitely an obligation to examine the possibility of action, and to think clearly about self and other, language and world, past and future. Because too much we have lived in the light of the idea that your ideology will be dictated to you essentially by geography. And if you’re born in India, you’ll find out that the cosmos is one way, if you’re born in Brooklyn, you find out it’s another way. What we need to do is transcend these localized grids of fate which make us what we are but don’t want to be. Because you claim this higher level of freedom by the simple act of applying attention to being, the experience of being, the primacy of experience.


This is why I can get along with these people in the Amazon who do these drugs. Because, though my Spanish is terrible and often theirs is worse (because they’re Indians)—“La experiencia, señor.” And yes, we understand, we know. And he says, you know—because we’re posing usually as scientists of some sort—“You’re from this or that university. You will return to this laboratory. You show me this paper, which has the name of my friend in it, because he helped you last year. But I say to you: experience is the thing.” And the only thing you can say to that is, “We know. It is.”


We must begin to send out ideological visions rather than be the consumers of them. We need to turn off the metaphorical televisions which are hooking us in to the network of cultural assumptions dictated from the Pentagon, Madison Avenue, and what have you. We need instead to turn on our terminals, and to begin to interact with like-minded people throughout the world, and establish this new intellectual order—which will be, then, the salvation of mankind, I firmly believe. Because it is a collectivity. And people will then feel the interrelatedness of their fates, feel that interrelatedness as a thing which transcends national divisions, ideological divisions, feel the primacy of being part of the human family.


And I think that it will not be done without psychedelics, because we have drifted so long without them. Surely, we are the culture that has gone longest without psychedelics in any cultural situation throughout the world. It’s been 2,000 years since the mystery was real at Eleusis. And in that 2,000 years we have wandered far, far into confusion. But we are the prodigal sons. We can redeem the ideal of shamanism from pre-technological social stasis and actually project it, perfect it, and send it out to the stars. And if we don’t do this, everything is lost. There is no standing still. There is only risk and commitment to these millennia-long cultural goals that will restore meaning and direction to our civilization, or we will fritter it away into chaos and destruction and the horrors of the typical future scenario.


Thank you.

Q & A Session



Questions? I can’t—



Earlier in your talk, you mentioned the expression “gene swarm,” and I’m not familiar with it. Could you explain it?



Yes. I talked about this in the workshop this afternoon, pointing out that the notion of “species” is simply a seventeenth-century convention of biological classification begun by Linnaeus, because when you visually look around with no awareness of geological time, you do seem to see distinct plants and animals. But now that we are aware of such things as bacterial transfer of genes from one organism to another, and this sort of thing, we realize that the apparent fixity of the species is an illusion, and that actually there is only a gene swarm on the planet. And it coagulates into centers. The densest kind of center it coagulates into we call an organism. But it also coagulates into more loosely-bound systems, such as symbiotic relationships, or yet more loosely-bound relationships—ecotones and biospheres—and that, really, there are just different—any given biological center, there is just a series of concentric shells of influence going both directions, outward, and that’s a more true view of the situation on the planet than the notion that there are distinct species.



So that you would see the actual organisms and all that as being maybe—all the gene swarm expressing itself—as an interaction with the environment at that particular moment in—



Yes, they’re temporary aggregates of genetic material.



Right, right. I’d never heard that, and I find it very interesting!



Well, it turns out, when you start—I don’t want to get too deeply into it, because it’s a sideline—but when you start looking at the ways that genetic material is transferred around, there are all kinds of ways. There’s even been a kind of termite found in Africa where the mating activity is so furious that—and the sexual organ of the male insect so sharp—that they actually pierce the body cavity, not only of females, but also of other males. And by marking the sperm of these insects and following it, you can discover that some male individuals are transferring sperm to females that is not their sperm. And that absolutely violates the central dogma of Darwinian evolution, which is that the transferability and adaptability of the genetic material is directly linked to the adaptability of its carrier. But here you have a situation where the owner of the sperm may be dead because he was non-adaptive, but the sperm (because it’s in the body of a more adaptive insect) is actually having an impact on the expression of the phenotype. So that’s very technical—but anyway, genetic material moves around in all kinds of ways, and I’m sure there are more ways soon to be discovered.



Politically speaking, what would be some of the first steps to integrate psychedelics into our culture?



Well, harking back to my notion that the responsibility always rests on us, and that you don’t want to go out and immediately form a movement to change those guys or that bureau, I think the thing that should be done is: people who are involved in psychedelics should live lives of such exemplitude and impeccability that the notion that there was anything shady or wrong or curious about this phenomenon would be ludicrous. I’ve thought about it. See, I [???].

Any other questions? Then, thank you very, very—yes?



I’d like to have a clearer vision of how you would see a psychedelic society, in that, if we were able to demolish a lot of the belief systems that we do operate under, how would we relate to one another? How would you see that vision unfolding?



Okay. Well, there was a French sociologist about fifteen years ago who had some vogue, and then faded—I don’t know what his sin was—but his name was Jacques Ellul, and he wrote a book called The Technological Society. And in there he had an axiom, and the axiom was: “There are no political solutions, only technological ones. The rest is propaganda.” What a psychedelic society would do, I think, is it would rationally solve problems. The first thing to notice is that we could pave the streets with gold if we would just eliminate defense spending. In other words, our limited energy resources are not being allocated in such a way as to move us toward survival. We have to begin to solve our problems using solutions that are present at hand, no matter who they offend.



So there would be a value system in operation, then?



A humanist value system. It’s very interesting to me that the—what are they called? The silent majority?—that the way in which they name their enemies is “secular humanists.” This is the only intelligent thing they ever say. It’s the only intelligent phrase in their entire repertoire. But it’s fascinating. We are secular humanists. That’s precisely what we are. We believe that human beings are to be the measure of all things. That there is no other standard—not a classless society or god almighty—there is no other standard but man, humanity, people. And, this is a Renaissance ideal that was first enunciated by Marsilio Ficino in 1510.


But we have not acted upon it. We have not, up to this time, had a secular humanist society. We’ve had had this curious mix of medieval remnants in the religious department, gangster capitalism in the economic department, stasis-seeking Marxism as a counterpoise to that. We have never rationally tried to solve our problems, and we have never rationally tried to solve our problems on a personal level until the advent of, well, psychology, in the modern sense. People never examined the center. They thought of the center as a mirrored bead, and you didn’t ask questions about the self or motive or the relationship of your worldview to trauma, expectation, class level. All of these things we have become aware of as we have steadily retreated from the illusion of a world deployed in three-dimensional space.


And we’re only at the beginning of this process. For instance—I mean, I don’t say this to knock Esalen. I say it as an example. I think Esalen is definitely the cutting edge of things, and has been for some time. But isn’t it preposterous that Esalen operates under the laws of the United States, which make taking these drugs illegal? They must do that. They must do it. They have no choice, whatever their private opinions may be. And all institutions are in that bind. There’s no such thing as a revolutionary institution, there are only revolutionary people. And this is why this de-emphasis on belief systems and their support systems, which are institutions, seems to me the essence of the psychedelic message. It says: be against method. Don’t be enslaved to method. Embrace anarchy. Anarchy has a bad name, because in the political arena it’s a weird number, but in philosophy, in science, in love, and in human relations generally, it seems to me it is the most respectable system based on its track record.


Any others?



Is there any truth in Jung’s point of view that there had been a certain amount preserved in Tübingen University that he tracks back to a lot of myths to a secret art of [???]?



Well, this is a game you can play, yes. I mean, his view of it was very correct. There are these lines that can be traced back. Gnosis. I didn’t use this word tonight, gnosis, nor did I use the word lógos, but this notion of an accessible truth which is self-evidently true when heard is very close to the notion of the collectivity of the psychedelic society. My idea is that we could change the lógos of the mystery religions from a religious mystery into a social reality. And that would be a social transformation, because it would essentially sacralize the secular humanist society that I mentioned.




I’ve been picking up a sort of an urgency of “we gotta do it, and do it now” type of thing as far as shamanism is concerned. I couldn’t quite understand why I can’t sit back in my stupidity and continue this, you know, practice? Is it because we’re coming to man can destroy the world?



No. It may be related to that. We can’t know about that. But for sure what it’s related to is that your human existence is a unique opportunity.



So it’s only the opportunity. There is no great urgency as far as you see it. It’s not a matter of: we gotta do it now, because we got ourselves into a bind. And if we don’t get the realization or the knowledge of [???] with—



If we don’t do it, someone else will. That’s my faith. But there’s only one game in town. And if you want to be part of the adventure of being, you have to get your feet wet. And that means you have to get committed in some way.



So if it’s not done now, it’ll be done in a hundred years from now.



This is coming. I mean, this wave has been rolling toward completion since before the breakup of Pangaea. This is the big picture. Yes, it’s coming. The monkeys are going to the stars—whether smoothly or not so smoothly is not clear. But the monkeys are going to the stars and they’re going to take everyone with them. And it can be a relatively smooth birth with no tearing and no bleeding, and everything just moving right along, or it can be holy hell and leave the Earth a smoking cinder before it’s over with. But the monkey thing, the information creature, is definitely on its way to the stars. I don’t think anything can stop that. If you wanted to stop that, you had to get back there before the pyramids.

Well, thank you very much!

Terence McKenna

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