Well, do you think we’re in a state of transition? Are we moving from one culture to another?
Oh, I think we are definitely in a state of transition. This is the chaos at the end of history. However, it’s probably nothing to be alarmed about. I imagine it’s simply the normal situation that prevails when a species is preparing to depart for the stars.
Do you think we’re preparing to depart for the stars?
Well, on the scale of a hundred or a thousand years, I think it’s an unavoidable conclusion. And that span of time—in geological terms—is hardly the wink of an eye. In fact, all of human history (from that perspective) appears as a preparation for human transcendence of the planetary existence.
Do we want to get away from the planet?
Well, I think you have to take the view that, certainly, the planet is the cradle of mankind. But, inevitably, one cannot remain in the cradle forever. The human imagination, in conjunction with technology, has become a force so potent that it really can no longer be unleashed on the surface of the planet with safety. The human imagination has gained such an immense power that the only environment that is friendly to it is actually the vacuum of deep space. It is there that we can erect the architectonic dreams that drive us to produce a Los Angeles or a Tokyo, and do it on a scale and in such a way that it will be fulfilling rather than degrading. So, yes, I think we cannot move forward in understanding, without accepting as a consequence of that, that we have to leave the planet; that we are no longer the bipedal monkeys we once were. We have become almost a new force in nature. A thing of language and cybernetics, and an amalgam of computers and human brains and societal structures that has such an enormous forward momentum that the only place where it can express itself without destroying itself is, as James Joyce says, “up n’ent.”
So: long, long ago, in a faraway galaxy, a Star Wars style may be in our future?
As opposed to our past?
It’s in our present, I think. Our future is probably almost unimaginable. Because I think the transformation that leaving the planet will bring will also involve a transformation of our consciousness. We are not going as 1950s-style human beings. We are going to have to transform our minds before we are going to be able to leave the planet with any amount of grace. This is where I think the psychedelics come in, because they are anticipations of the future. They seem to channel information that is not strictly governed by the laws of normal causality, so that there really is a prophetic dimension: a glimpse of the potential of the far centuries of the future through these compounds. And no cultural shift of this magnitude can be unambiguous. I mean, the very idea that as a species we would leave the Earth behind us must be as rending an idea as that a child would leave its childhood home. Obviously, it’s a turning away from something that, once left behind, can never be recaptured. However, this is the nature of going forward into being: a series of self-transforming, a sense of level. And we now simply happen to be at that moment of ascent to a new level that is linked to leaving the planetary surface physically, and to reconnecting with the contents of the unconscious collectivity of our minds. These two things will be done simultaneously. This is what the last half of the 20th century—it seems to me—is all about.
Well, by and large, psychedelics have really not been accepted into the mainstream. Do you see a change in that?
Well, not particularly. They hold a certain fascination for a persistent majority. And in that way they do their catalytic work upon society, which is to introduce new ideas and to release a certain kind of creative energy into society. I certainly would not like to see a return to the psychedelic hysterias of the 1960s. I think it’s fine that these things are now the subject of interest of a much smaller group of people, but perhaps a group of people with a greater commitment and a better idea of exactly what these things are. And it’s really the same people, it’s just a smaller group of them. And they have accumulated experience over the past twenty years.
However, I certainly don’t think all psychedelic frontiers are conquered. One of the things that I write about and speak about are the phenomena that many people confirm with the psilocybin family of hallucinogens that no one has included in the standard model of psychedelic drugs. And by that I refer to the Logos-like phenomenon of an interiorized voice that seems to be almost a super-human agency, a kind of genius loci. And I’ve been writing recently about alien intelligence, which is what I call this. Where you have contact with an entity so beyond the normal structure of the ego that, if it is not an extraterrestrial, it might as well be. Because its bizarreness and its distance from ordinary expectations about what can go on is so great that, if flying saucers arrived here tomorrow from the Pleiades it would make this mystery no less compelling.
It amuses me that the scientific community has taken over the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and defined it as they care to define it, and have dedicated radio telescopes to search the galaxy for these signals. And the world’s largest radio telescope is at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, and within the shadow of that installation, mushrooms grow in the fields and the cows munch quietly in the sunshine. And it’s this marvelous interpenetration of the near and the faraway. Because I believe that the place to search for extraterrestrials is in the psychic dimension. And there the problem is not the absence of contact, but the volume of contact that must be sifted through. Because the fact of the matter is: shamans and mystics and seers have been hearing voices and talking to gods and demons since the Paleolithic and probably before. That doesn’t mean that we can rule out this approach to communication. It seems to me far more likely that an advanced civilization would communicate interdimensionally and telepathically. The amounts of time available for an intelligent species to evolve these kinds of communication are vast.
So I think that it’s very interesting, then, that the tryptamines—psilocybin and DMT—at the 15 milligram level very reliably trigger what could only be described as “contact-like phenomena.” And not only the interiorized voice in the head, but also the classical flying saucer motifs of the whirling disc, the lens-shaped object, the alien approach. This seems to be something hardwired into the human psyche, and I would like to find out why. I think it’s a very odd fact of human psychology, and I don’t buy any of the current theories—ranging from that nothing at all is happening to that this is, in fact, another species with a world around another star that is getting in touch with us. I think it’s something so bizarre that it actually masquerades as an extraterrestrial so as not to alarm us by the true implications of what it is.
Your statement implies that it’s something external to ourselves, and I wonder about that.
Well, this dualism of the interior and the exterior may have to be overcome. It obviously transcends the individual; but I suspect it is something like an Overmind of the species. And that, actually, the highest form of human organization is not realized in the democratic individual, it is realized in a dimension none of us has ever penetrated, which is the mind of the species—which is actually the hand at the tiller of history. It is no government, no religious group, but actually what we call the human unconscious. But it is not unconscious, and it is not simply a cybernetic repository of myth and memory. It is an organized entelechy of some sort, and human history is its signature on the primates. And it is so different from the primates. It is like a creature of pure information. It is made of language. It releases ideas into the flowing stream of history to boost the primates toward higher and higher levels of self-reflection of it. And we have now reached the point where the masks are beginning to fall away and we are discovering that there is an angel within the monkey, struggling to get free. And this is what the historical crisis is all about. And I’m, for no reasons in particular, very optimistic. I mean, I see it as a necessary chaos that will lead to a new and more attractive order.
Terence, you were talking about extraordinary realities, and it occurs to me that there is an enormous amount of prejudice against the psychedelics and the use of hallucinogenic substances. It’s almost as if there’s an inordinate fear to open up the door to the closet that these substances reveal. What about that prejudice? What do you think is—how’s that going to be resolved? What is the resolution of that?
Well, I think it’s more complicated than a prejudice. It’s a prejudice born of respect, because most people sense that these compounds probably actually do what their adherents claim they do. It’s possible to see the whole human growth movement of the 1970s as a wish to continue the inward quest without having to put yourself on the line the way you had to when you took 250 gamma of LSD. And I think all these other methods are efficacious, but I think it’s the sheer power of the hallucinogens that puts people off. You either love them or you hate them, and that’s because they dissolve world views. And if you like the experience of having your entire ontological structure disappear out from under you—if you think that’s a thrill—you’ll probably love psychedelics. On the other hand, for some people that’s the most horrible thing they can possibly imagine. They navigate reality through various forms of faith. And I think that the psychedelics—the doors of perception are cleansed and you see very, very deeply.
I spent time in India and I would always go to the local sādhus of great reputation. And I met many people who possessed what I call “wise old man wisdom,” but wise old man wisdom is a kind of Tao of how to live. It has nothing to say about these dimensions that the psychedelics reveal. And for that you have to go places where hallucinogenic shamanism is practiced—specifically, the Amazon Basin—and there you discover that beyond, simply, the wisdom of how to live in ordinary reality there is a gnosis of how to navigate in extraordinary reality. And this reality is so extraordinary that we cannot approach what these people are doing with any degree of smugness, because the frank fact of the matter is: we have no viable theory of what mind is, either. The beliefs of a Witoto shaman and the beliefs of a Princeton phenomenologist have an equal chance of being correct, and there are no arbiters of who is right. So it’s the power of these things. The fact that here is something we have not assimilated. We have been to the moon, we have charted the depths of the ocean, the heart of the atom, but we have a fear of looking inward to ourselves because we sense that here is where all the contradictions flow together. And the same prejudice psychoanalysis that characterized the ’20s and ’30s—when it was thought to be superfluous or some kind of fad—attends the psychedelics now because it touches a very sensitive nerve. It touches the issue of the nature of man, and people are uncomfortable with this. Or some people are uncomfortable with this.
What is the value of exploring extraordinary realities?
Well, I guess it’s the same value that attends the exploration of ordinary realities. There’s an alchemical saying that one should read the oldest books, climb the highest mountains, and visit the broadest deserts. I think that being imposes some kind of obligation to find out what’s going on. And since all primary information about what is going on comes through the senses, any drug or any compound which alters that sensory input has to be looked at very carefully. I’ve often made the point that, chemically speaking, you can have a molecule which is completely inactive as a psychedelic, and you move a single atom on one of its rings, and suddenly it’s a powerful psychedelic. Well, now, it seems to me this is a perfect proof of the interpenetration of matter and mind. The movement of a single atom from one known position to another known position changes an experience from nothing to overwhelming. This means that mind and matter, at the quantum mechanical level, are all spun together. This means that, in a sense, the term “extraordinary reality” is not correct if it implies a division of category from ordinary reality. It is simply there is more and more and more of reality. And some of it is inside our heads, and some of it is deployed out through three-dimensional Newtonian space.
Most of us, I think, just simply accept the everyday reality as the only one. And you’re talking about journeys into the nether regions far beyond most people’s conception or even wanting to conceive of such a reality.
Well, I think there’s a shamanic temperament, which is a person who craves knowledge—knowledge in the Greek sense of gnosis. In other words, knowledge not of the sort where you subscribe to Scientific American and it validates what you believe, but cosmologies constructed out of immediate experience that are found always to be applicable. You see, I don’t believe that the world is made of quarks, or electromagnetic waves, or stars, or planets, or any of these things. I believe the world is made out of language and that this is the primary fact that has been overlooked. The construction of the flying saucer is not so much a dilemma of hardware as it is a poetic challenge. And people find it very hard to imagine exactly what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is that the leading edge of reality is mind, and mind is the primary substratum of being. We in the West have had it the wrong way around for over a millennium. But once this is clearly understood with what we have learned in our little excursion through three-dimensional space and matter, we will create a new vision of humanity that will be a fusion of the East and the West.
The world being made of language, and I think of these extraordinary realities which are totally beyond any language that we use in any ordinary sense.
Yes, well, they are beyond ordinary language. I always think of Philo Judaeus writing on the Logos. He posed to himself the question, “What would be a more perfect Logos?” and then he answered saying, “it would be a Logos that is not heard but beheld.” And he imagined a form of communication where the ears would not be the primary receptors, but the eyes would be. A language where meaning was not constructed through a dictionary of little mouth noises, but actually three-dimensional objects were generated with a kind of hyper-language so that there was perfect understanding between people. And this may sound bizarre in ordinary reality, but these forms of synesthesia and synesthetic glossolalia are commonplace in psychedelic states.
Terence, could you identify Philo for us and tell us who he was?
He was an Alexandrian Jew of the 2nd century who made it his business to travel around the Hellenic world and discussed all the major cults and religious and cosmogonic theories of his day. So he’s a major source of Hellenistic data for us.
How would you relate to Socrates’ view of the world?
Well, I think that it’s hard not to be a Platonist, but it’s something perhaps we should struggle against, or at least struggle to modify. I think of myself as sort of a Whiteheadian Platonist. Certainly the central Platonic idea—which is the idea of the Ideas: these archetypal forms which stand outside of time—is one which is confirmed by the psychedelic experience. And Plato’s formulation of time as the moving image of eternity is another one of these aphorisms that the psychedelic state confirms. And certainly Neoplatonism—Plotinus and Porphyry and that school—are psychedelic philosophers. Their idea of an ascending hierarchy of more and more rarefied states is a sophisticated presentation of the shamanic cosmology, which is the cosmology that one experientially discovers when they involve themselves with psychedelics.
What I think most of us don’t understand or don’t really know is the fact that Greek culture and the Eleusinian Mysteries incorporated the use of something very akin to psychedelics.
Essentially, Western civilization is based on the culture that had at its core root an experience and a ritual that used—as I say—something akin to psychedelics.
Yes, well, for over 2,000 years everyone who was anyone in the ancient world made the pilgrimage to Eleusis and had this experience which Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck have argued very convincingly was a hallucinogenic intoxication on ergot. But of course, as soon as the Church solidified its power, it closed these Platonic academies and moved against so-called pagan knowledge and heretical knowledge. And not only the Platonists, but all the Gnostic sects, all of these people, all of these viewpoints were repressed. I like to think that the end of that repression came in a very odd way when, in 1953 I guess it was, Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina—in the village of Huautla de Jiménez in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca—discovered the psilocybin mushroom cult. It was as if Eros, who had been martyred in the Old World, was then found sleeping in the mountains of Mexico and resurrected. And the experience of the mushroom is very much the experience of a genius loci, a god on the Grecian model. Not the god who hung the stars in heaven, but a local god, a pre-Christian, bacchanalian nature power that is very alien and yet resonates with our expectations of what that experience would be like.
Interesting that the mushroom also is a symbol in our culture of death and destruction, being the symbol of the nuclear explosion; the mushroom cloud.
Yes, well, my brother has made the point, asking, “What mushroom is it that grows at the end of history? Is it the mushroom of Fermi and Oppenheimer and Teller, or is it the mushroom of Wasson and Hofmann and Humphry Osmond?”
Somehow I think the latter is safer.
Well, it may not only be safer, it may open the way to escape from the former. It’s like a pun in physics that the force of liberation and the force of destruction could take the same form. It’s what alchemists call a coincidentia oppositorum.
It is an amazing synchronicity, it seems. I was interested in talking with Andy Weil some time ago about the fact that there are new genus of mushrooms appearing that have psilocybin in them, that have never been seen before. Never been tracked before. It’s almost as if they’re appearing now.
Well, it’s amazing how many have been discovered since people have bent their attention to it. There have been psilocybin mushrooms reported from England, France—localities where, so far as we know, there is no cultural history of usage at all. However, it’s interesting that cultural usage seems to disappear very early in human history. Hallucinogens are hardly even welcome in agricultural societies. I think it was Weston La Barre who made the point that once you learn how to grow plants, your god shifts from the ecstatic god of the hallucinogens to the corn god or the food god, and no longer is about divining the hunt and weather through the ecstatic use of hallucinogens. It’s about being able to get up every morning and go to work and hoe the crop. So, you mentioned earlier the prejudice against hallucinogens: I think it reaches back to the beginning of agriculture. This competition among plant gods which exemplified lifestyles that must have seemed very alien to each other.
Is psilocybin illegal?
Oh yes, it’s a Schedule I drug. Without any public debate it was placed on the list at the same time that LSD was. Yet, the issue was always couched in terms of LSD being made illegal. But actually, at that point in time, a whole bunch of things were made illegal. And there was never any public debate. All psychedelics were viewed as the same drug, and LSD was used as the model. Actually, these drugs—there’s a spectrum of psychedelic effects, and certain drugs trigger some of them and certain ones others. But, yes, psilocybin is illegal.
Are the mushrooms illegal?
The mushrooms also are illegal, as they contain psilocybin.
You recall Andy Weil saying that he walked along a downtown Seattle residential street picking up psilocybin mushrooms from the front yards of residential homes.
Oh yes! And English law took the view that it was preposterous to try and outlaw a naturally occurring plant. And they took the position that only the chemical was illegal, which I think is a very wise position. But I notice that Canada recently chose the American interpretation over the British one.
Interesting. It turns out—going back to the Andy Weil story—that the reason that these mushrooms were in such plenitude in various locales in the northwest was that their spores were contained in a realtor company’s mushroom-growing product that they sent out. And so…
Yeah, so, this is an interesting phenomenon. You see, the spores of the mushroom are not illegal because they do not contain psilocybin. They only contain the message in the DNA of the mushroom for the production of psilocybin. So it’s a kind of bizarre catch-22. The mushroom spores can move anywhere, legally can be bought and sold, but they are the sine qua non for the production of mushrooms, of course.
Terence, the kind of knowledge and the kind of information you’re putting forward is not generally available. It’s not the kind of information or knowledge that one would find in the typical academic anthropology curriculum, and yet it seems to be a knowledge that is ever expanding. But somehow it’s outside of the cultural institutional entities in some way. Number one, why do you think that’s the case? Of course there’s a logical answer to that one, but what do you see as the future of this kind of information, this kind of knowledge?
Well, I think—in a sense—it signals the rebirth of the institution of shamanism in the context of modern society. And anthropologists have always made the point about shamans that they were very important social catalysts in their group, but they were always peripheral to it: peripheral to the political power and, actually, usually physically peripheral, living some distance from the village. And I think the electronic shaman—the people who pursue the exploration of these spaces—exist to return to tell the rest of us about it. That we are now coming into a period of racial maturity as a species where we can no longer have forbidden areas of the human mind or cultural machinery. We have taken upon ourselves the acquisition of so much power that we now must understand what we are. We cannot travel much further with the definitions of man that we inherit from the Judeo-Christian tradition. We need to truly explore the problem of consciousness because, as man gains power, he is becoming the defining fact on the planet in the near-space area. So, the question that looms is, “Is man good?” And then, if he is, “What is it he’s good for?”
And the shamans will point the way, because what they are are visionaries, poets, cultural architects, forecasters—all these roles which we understand in more conventional terms, rolled into one and raised to the nth power. They are cultural models for the rest of us. This has always been true: the shaman has access to a superhuman dimension and a superhuman condition, and by being able to do that he affirms the potential for transcendence in all people. He is an exemplar, if you will, and I see the attention that’s being given to these things signaling a sense, on the part of society, that we need a return to these models. This is why, for instance, in the Star Wars phenomenon, Skywalker—Luke Skywalker—“Skywalker” is a direct translation of the word “shaman” out of the Tungusic, which is where Siberian shamanism comes from. So these heroes that are being instilled in the heart of the culture are shamanic heroes. They control a force which is bigger than everybody and holds the galaxy together. This is true, as a matter of fact. And as we explore how true it is, the limitations of our previous world view will be exposed for all to see. I think it was J. B. S. Haldane who said, “The world may not only be stranger than we suppose, it may be stranger than we can suppose.”
I think that the character Yoda is a shamanic-type character.
Right. Very much so.
As we talk about shamans and shamanism, again that brings up cross-cultural currents. Do you see the shaman taking on a new—certainly, you don’t see Indian shamans walking into the metropolitan areas. Do you see the shaman taking on a new form?
Well, I believe—along with Gordon Wasson and others, but in distinction to Mircea Eliade, who is a major writer on shamanism—that it is hallucinogenic shamanism that is primary. And that, where shamanic techniques are used to the exclusion of hallucinogenic drug ingestion, the shamanism tends to be vitiated; it is more like a ritual enactment of what real shamanism is. So that the shamanism that is coming to be is coming to be within people in our culture, people who feel comfortable with psychedelic drugs and who—by going into those spaces and then returning with works of art, or poetic accounts, or scientific ideas—are actually changing the face of the culture.
I connect the psychedelic dimension to the dimension of inspiration and dream. I think history has always progressed by the bubbling up of ideas from these nether dimensions into the minds of receptive men and women. It is simply that now, with the hallucinogens, we actually have a tool to push the button. We are no longer dependent upon whatever factors it is that previously controlled the ingression of novelty into human history. We have taken that function to ourselves, and this will accelerate and intensify the cultural crisis. But I think, in the end, it will lead that much sooner to its resolution.
So as we continue to move towards the further exploration of these spaces, we can expect social change as a result of personal change?
Tremendous social change. I see, in fact, what is happening is a tendency to what I call “turn the body inside out.” We are—through our media and our cybernetics—we are actually approaching the point where consciousness can be experienced in a state of disconnection from the body. We have changed. We are no longer, as I said, bipedal monkeys. We are instead a kind of cybernetic coral reef of organic components and inorganic technological components. We have become a force which takes unorganized raw material and excretes technical objects. We have transcended the normal definitions of man. We are like an enormous collective organism with our data banks, and our forecasting agencies, and our computer networks, and the many levels at which we are connected into the universe. Our self-image is changing; the monkey is all but being left behind and, shortly, will be left behind.
The flying saucer, again, I take to be an image of the future state of humanity. It is a kind of millenarian transformation of the man where the soul is exteriorized as the apotheosis of technology. And it is that eschatological event which is casting enormous shadows backward through time over the historical landscape. That is the siren at the end of time, calling all mankind across the last ten millennia toward it. Calling us out of the trees and into history, and through this series of multileveled cultural transitions to the point where the thing within the monkeys—the creature of pure language and pure imagination whose aspirations are entirely titanic in terms of self-transformation—that thing is emerging, and it will emerge as man leaves the planet. And it’s not something quantized and clearly defined. It is, in fact, what the next fifty or so years will be about. But at the end of it, the species will be off-planet, and transformed, and fully wired from the depths to the heights.
Are we just talking about another version of the Christian death, resurrection, ascension into heaven?
Except that it is coming into history. What is happening is that the paradise promised the soul is actually going to enter into history. Because technological man took the apocalyptic aspirations of Christianity so seriously that we are going to make it happen. It has become the guiding image of what we want to be. And I’m reminded of the poem by Yeats—it’s Sailing to Byzantium—where he speaks of how, after death, he would like to be an enameled golden object singing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium. And it’s the image of man transformed into eternal circuitry and released into a hyperspace of information where you are a thing of circuitry but you appear to be walking along an unspoiled beach in Paradise. It is that we are going to find the power to realize our deepest cultural aspirations. This is why we must find out what our deepest cultural aspirations are. Again, another way of phrasing the question “is man good?”
What about the idea that these spaces that we’ve been talking about, that you’ve been illuminating, are spaces that can be achieved without the use of psychedelics?
Well, again: I scoured India, and my humble, personal opinion is that it is highly unlikely. I’ve always approached people of spiritual accomplishment with the question, “What can you show me?” Because, as I said earlier, this wise old man wisdom is one thing, but only the hallucinogen-using shaman of the Amazon seems to be able to go beyond that. There may be techniques for doing this, but the efficacy and the dependability of the hallucinogens seems to me to make them the obvious choice. it would only be a series of cultural conventions that would cause one to want to engineer around that. It is the obvious path to transcendence. People must face the fact that, at one level, we are chemical machines. That doesn’t mean we are that at every level, but it does mean that that is a chemical level where we can intervene to change the pictures that are coming in and going out at higher levels.
You’re not suggesting that people should do this by themselves?
Take hallucinogens? Well, I don’t know about taking them by themselves. Probably not, although I always do. And I seem to prefer it. What I am suggesting is they take it in a situation of minimum sensory input. Lying down in darkness with eyes closed cannot be surpassed. And people want music, they want to walk around in nature, they want all these things. But nature and music are beautiful in their own right; they are the adumbrations of the psychedelic experience that we deal with in ordinary reality. In confrontation with the psychedelic experience these things are hardly more than impediments. The very interesting things are happening in the utter blackness behind your eyelids lying still in darkness, and that is where the mystery comes from and goes to.
My question had to do with or without a guide.
Oh, I don’t think people should do it without a guide unless they feel very confident from experience that they don’t need a guide. I like to have these ideas get out. I think it’s important that we discuss all this in a way that is only now becoming possible because of how it was in the 1960s. Now we need to shed all that, and look back and look forward, and try to make a mature judgment for our culture based on the facts of the matter.