What I've Learned from Psychedelics

McKenna describes his encounters while in the DMT state, theorizing that the beings he met are ancestor souls communicating from beyond death, offering reassurance about the afterlife to ease anxiety over mortality. He says psychedelics catalyze an expanded consciousness, unfolding awareness into a higher dimension where one can behold this ecology of souls, and sees this expanded awareness as helping to midwife humanity’s transition to a new stage of being.




Judging by the conversation before breakfast with a few people, maybe there’s more to be said about DMT than what we said yesterday. Does anybody—I think these things are most productive when they’re driven by questions rather than somebody jawing away. Is there anybody who wants to ask a question or extend what was said either yesterday or before breakfast this morning?



I’m concerned about how is one going to—since it’s not easy to get it commercially—how does one prepare it in a for that will give you the experience comparable to yours?



Well, I’m not a chemist, and I dare say, you know, these things, it’s dangerous because these things use reactive solvents and stuff like that. It’s possible that, out of the same set of plants that the ayahuasca analogs can be prepared, that you could concentrate DMT out of desmanthus illinoensis or psychotria or phaleris or something like that. For those of us who aren’t second-year students in biochemistry this is probably the way to go. The other way to go is to try and find a chemist and inspire them to make it. I mean, I know it’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but on the other hand, if there were a terribly satisfying answer there wouldn’t be the question, would there?



You’ve been talking about concentrating it [???] water?



Well, no. The way you would do it if you were serious is: you would get a piece of apparatus called a Soxhlet extractor. This is a piece of chemical glassware, and the way it works is: you hook it, you plug it in, through a ground glass fitting. You plug it into your solvent vessel which is sitting on a heater, and it vaporizes the solvent. The solvent is carried through a tube, past the Soxhlet, and up into a condenser. The condenser then liquefies. It drips down onto the sample, which is in a little thing which looks sort of like a condom or a toilet paper tube. Anyway, it’s a cylinder with a rounded end that you pack with the sample that you’re extracting. And the Soxhlet, which was undoubtedly designed in Germany by somebody very clever—this hot solvent falls on the sample, and the sample gets more and more immersed in the solvent. Well then, when the solvent is above the level of the little sample-holding tube, there’s a little pipe on the side of the Soxhlet which leads back down in the vessel on the heater, and a kind of siphon automatically cuts in. It’s a passive thing. It’s just how it’s designed. And the hot solvent, it goes pfffffffhh, and it just sucks all the solvent off the sample and drops it back in the lower flask. And then the hot solvent begins pure. Nothing is dissolved in it because, you know, when a solvent vaporizes it leaves all the other materials behind. And you run this—they call it refluxing—you reflux the sample for two or three hours. And at the end of that time you can be fairly confident if you’ve chosen your solvent correctly that 99% of what was in [cut] is now down in the solvent flask. And then you just unhook the solvent flask from the apparatus, take that, and evaporate it, and then you get a pure—the liquid then in the flask is called “mother liquor.” It is a whole alkaloid extract. Every alkaloid in the sample is now in solution in this stuff. Then you can either simply drive the solvent off and you’ll get probably a dark brown, reddish-brown tar of some sort that you can smoke. Or if you really are a…


I saw a guy smoke DMT in the forest in Hawai’i, and one of these metallic bugs came and hovered right over him for the entire trip. Anyway, then you have this red tar which you can smoke. But if you want only the DMT and want to separate it from the other alkaloids, then there’s a further series of steps which is: you get chromatography paper. You know what this is? And you pour the solvent into like a petri dish, suspend the chromatography paper so that it just touches the solvent. And you all know and understand the principles of chromatography? Yes, it wicks up through the paper, which is very porous, and compounds at different molecular weights will deposit themselves at different levels in the chromatography paper. And then with an ultraviolet light—or sometimes you can tell with your naked eye; it depends on what you’re looking for—the DMT will all… like, say, the DET will be at 3.5 inches, the DMT will be at 4 inches, the monomethyl DMT will be above that. In other words, they fractionate out. And then you do this, and you save your chromatography papers. And then, when you’ve used up all your mother liquor in this way, then you take a pair of scissors and you go through and you cut out the inch-wide strip where all the DMT located in the filter paper. And so then you get a bunch of little pieces of paper which are saturated in DMT.


Now you put them in a clean thing, this condom-like filter. It looks like a bullet. You put the little sheets of chromatography paper in there, run a solvent through that. And this time, when you evaporate off the solvent, you will get a pure enough compound for your purposes. I mean, it will be 98%, 99% pure DMT. I mean, this may sound like a lot of hassle. But on the other hand, we’re talking about the key to the mysteries of life and death here, so the effort doesn’t seem too [???].



Talking about a solvent—how do you know what solvent to use?



Well, you can look this up in a standard chemistry book. The cautionary word here is: the high molecular weight solvents are flammable. Chloroform, ether—use these things very carefully and always in an open, well-ventilated place. And for god’s sake, don’t heat your flask on a gas stove. No open flames allowed. Use a hot plate or something like that. Professional chemists have what are called bird nest heaters, which are these things which look like bird nests of various sizes that the flask of solvent just very nicely snuggles down into the bird nest heater. And make sure that there are no ungrounded electrical connections around. Ideally it should be done outside where the moving air can disperse the solvent. You don’t want to make a fuel of yourself.



You said this morning since DMT is so difficult to get that psilocybin, if you have more than eight grams, or eight grams at least, that you would get a similar or same effect. Did I understand?



Well, I said that sometimes, on high-dose psilocybin, sitting in darkness, breathing and working it, massaging it, over hours you can break into these places. But of course there’s a number of extraneous issues here. You have to—the one thing about the DMT flash is that it’s mercifully quick, so there isn’t any time to panic or begin to think about the implications of it. It’s just a white-knuckle trip through it, and then you’re out. I think—I mean, my technique is to try and inspire chemists to make it, you know? And I always tell people—people say, “Where do you get it?” I always say, “When you find it, call me first.” And to chemists I say, “When you make it, call me first.” And I think this is an effective method for those of us who aren’t inspired biochemists.


They want us to, somehow—under the influence of DMT, and to a lesser degree psilocybin—they want us to experiment with language. They want us to, you know—I mean, this is just my intuition, but I think we’re… you know, yesterday, at the end, we were talking about how we’re on the brink of an ontological transformation of language from something seen to something beheld? I think that there’s some kind of coalescence of the linguistic intent that they want to catalyze. The way I think of these psychedelic compounds is that they are enzymes which catalyze the imagination. A catalyst is something which you add to a chemical reaction to speed it up. And I think that consciousness might well have evolved out of higher hominids given 30–40–50 million years, but it happened in two million years. And to account for that I think we have to look for a catalyst of the imagination. And that’s what these things do. I mean, your mind becomes a much more powerful tool for the forming of associations, for the producing of imagery, for—I mean, you mind becomes like the discriminating wisdom of the sword of Manjushri. You’re just able to cut through. Consciousness expansion is what these things were associated with. And I say in my talks it’s absence of consciousness that is killing the planet. So if there’s something that we can do to accelerate our consciousness, then it seems to me there’s almost a moral and political obligation to do that.



[???] indigenous shamans, ayahuasceros, the visions they have [???] the visions they have are [???] saw a beautiful woman [???] riding on a horse [???] and she was telling [???] and this and that. And he was saying that was the [???] I was thinking that other young people [???] that follow this [???] don’t see the visions that the master ayahuasceros see, which are usually [???] beautiful visions of spirits [???] this and that. And maybe it’s the fasting and the initiation that the shamans or ayahuasceros go through in order to get to a point where they can see these wonderful things. It’s maybe preparing the body to be sensitive enough to perceive, to be able to get into that state of concentration on DMT. Maybe it’s because we haven’t gone through that initiation or that our bodies aren’t adapted to that, that we may need a higher dose level or more concentration. But I think that’s [???] maybe what they have developed in order to get to the point to see these things is, in some way or another, preparing the body to be able to get into that state with the concentration available to them.



Yeah, I think—well, it’s not something I think, it’s so—that the body is an incredibly sensitive and delicate instrument for interacting with the world. For instance, an example that I like to use: some of you may remember from when you were children, if you got a really good chemistry set there would be a thing in it called a spinthariscope. Do you all know what a spinthariscope is? You could make one of these. They’re really neat. You could make one—this seems to be the metaphor of the morning—you could make one with the paper tube from the inside of a roll of toilet paper. What a spinthariscope is is: it’s a little pipe, usually no longer than this, and in one it has a lens. And in the other end it has a painted phosphorous screen, like a television set, but just a little piece of cardboard that’s got some phosphorous painted on it. And right in front of the phosphorous screen is a needle which has been dipped in airplane glue, and then the end of the needle has been rolled in a kind of radium that is on a glow-in-the-dark watch, you know? So what you do with the spinthariscope is: you go into a closet and close the door, and you sit in darkness for about ten minutes. And then you look into the spinthariscope, and lo and behold, it looks like twinkling stars! You see little flashes of light randomly on the other end of the spinthariscope. These are—get this!—single photons of light, because the radiation from the radium is striking the phosphorous screen and kicking out single photons from the phosphorous. You, sitting here, 145 pounds of meat, are looking right at single photons coming into existence. You’re looking into the quantum realm.


Now, they’ve also done experiments where, in a special kind of apparatus, they can—I don’t know how they keep the eardrum from bursting—but they evacuate air from the ear and then they can release a single oxygen molecule into the ear, and you can actually hear it bumping against the timpanic membrane. Well, so these kinds of experiments are by way of example that the human body is an instrument with a range of ability that reaches from the quantum-mechanical foundations of matter, up to when you look through a large telescope out into the galaxy, you know, you can physically have light fall on your eyes that has been traveling for four, five billion years. So the human body is an incredibly advanced instrument for the exploration of nature.


And we think you can’t learn anything about quantum physics unless you build an instrument 17 kilometers in diameter that costs $100 billion and provides pork barrel for twenty years for a bunch of weasel politicians. This is just because of our obsession with instrumentality. But what the shaman knows is that the human body is a superb instrument for doing this kind of thing. That’s why I take—I think the models of reality that emerge out of shamanism are equally on a par with the crowd that’s seeking the top quark and all that other stuff. I mean, these things are pretty airy-fairy stuff. And usually the argument for them rests on the fiat of some fishy formula.


So part of the whole thing about psychedelics, I think, is—and I hammer on this all the time—is what I call reclaiming the felt presence of immediate experience. This is what you are. You are not Time magazine, or National Public Radio, or any of this stuff. The felt presence of immediate experience here, now. Everything else is rumor, innuendo, illusion, factual ricochet. And we, as a culture, have completely sold ourselves out. I mean, we all run around with the idea “Little me, what do I know?” The guys at SRI, they know. The guys at NIMH—notice: guys, guys everywhere. This is a kind of self-definition that is totally disempowering. And shamans, all they trust is their own experience. And they don’t even trust their memories of their own past experience. The world is made new each time. So the felt presence of experience is all you’ll ever know, it’s all you ever can know. So why not empower it? And the psychedelics do this.


This is why they are so politically subversive. A psychedelic person is not willing to be a good citizen or a good anything that is defined by somebody else. I mean, a shaman is a true anarchist, a truly free soul—a real shaman. I mean, there are many… there’s always the ideal, and like every other profession, accommodations are made. But that’s the ideal: to be truly in the moment, truly connected to the felt presence of experience.


Well, I think cannabis is a tremendously interesting and underrated psychotropic. Most people who smoke cannabis smoke it quite regularly. You rarely meet someone who says, “I love cannabis. I smoke it four times a year.” I’ve wrestled with this myself, because there have been periods in my life—I kid you not—when I used to set my alarm clock for three in the morning because I felt unable to go from midnight to seven a.m. without smoking. And what happens with that, if you smoke cannabis like that, you’re in a kind of permanent state of: all you care about are big ideas, you know? I mean, you’re not very interested in getting a job, or even cleaning your room, particularly. And I think this is completely defensible. I have no problem with that.


My notion with what’s ideal with cannabis is: if one could have sufficient self-control, the perfect regimen with cannabis is, first of all, get the best stuff you can, and then, once a week—which is a groan to cannabis lovers, but that’s because we’re all using it for different purposes other than to plunge to the center of the mandala—but if you only smoke excellent cannabis and you only smoke it once a week, and you sit down like on a Sunday evening, unplug the telephone, turn out the lights, and smoke as much as you want as fast as you can, it’s competitive with things considered to be much more powerful.



I’ve had experiences because of my present irregularity [???] six months now since I’ve had anything.



Well, so you’ve built up a tremendous charge for it.



Now, when I get to that point, normally, it’s as thought the fear of what I’m in front of is such that I put the thing out, and I sit there, and I white-knuckle it, trying to maintain consciousness. And it usually takes about fifteen minutes before that pineapple fades. And at that point I just feel like I’ve trekked until everything fades away. Would it be maybe—I mean, is there any danger in when I see the pineapple?



I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I mean, the danger is your own tendency to panic.



Yeah. Because I don’t know—



But the cannabis is posing no problem.



Because I’ve wondered about that before and afterwards, what would happen if had just closed my eyes and gone into that pineapple?



That’s what you should do. I mean, this raises the question about fear, which always arises: what do you do about fear? People who claim they never experience fear around these psychotropics are not fully in touch with the modality of what’s going on. Yes, they haven’t taken enough! And what do you do about fear? Well, the best advice I ever heard was in, of all places, Frank Herbert’s book Dune where, remember, they have this strange drug called stroon, which allows them to see forward and backward into time? And he says in there: “Fear comes like a wind.” And what you must do is: you must just let the wind blow. It’s strange. It can’t sustain itself very long. And weirdly enough, your mind will wander. You will actually become bored with being afraid, and you’ll discover after a few minutes of being terrified that, now, your mind has wandered, and now you’re not terrified anymore.


When I do high-dose psychedelics, I just root myself to the floor. I have a rule of not moving, because moving is a kind of distraction. And you have to go into it. But learning not to be afraid—it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do. But you have to discipline the hindbrain. It’s the hindbrain that presents you with this fight or flight thing, and you just have to say, “Hey, look: this is neurocortex activity. Shut up already!”



Even in this state, I’m there, there’s awareness that if I—something says if only I knew that this was okay, to not [???] I think it’s just the [???] not normal.



It also helps to do the equivalent of praying. I mean, when I take mushrooms I say to it, “Please don’t hurt me. I’m giving myself to you completely. You can kill me if you want, but please don’t.” You know? And, now, it’s a funny thing, of course. When you get out into these places you have a whole bunch of—if you’ve done your homework—you have a bunch of scientific data to reassure yourself. I mean, let’s say you take ten grams of psilocybin, and two hours into it you convince yourself you’re dying. And then you say to yourself: “But the LD50 of psilocybin is thus and so,” and then you, in the dark, calculate: “Aha, so I would’ve had to’ve taken 900 times more than I actually took to actually kill myself.” But this is a weak form of conjuring because, I think, most psychedelic people have the faith that actually chemistry represents a lesser truth, and the real truth is that the mind can kill you instantly if it chooses to. There’s a terrifying passage in Jung in Mysterium Coniunctionis, where he says, “The psyche has a thousand ways of terminating a life which has become meaningless.” You know? A slip in the hall, a step in front of an oncoming city bus, a moment of inattention—bingo, you’re compost. So we have to honor the mind. The mind is in control, you know? It’s not easy to do this stuff. I mean, anybody who calls it escapism just is pissing in the wind. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, this is some of the toughest work that can be done.



In the ancient world the Greeks [???] were those who would not become inebriated, and they were [???] because they were hiding themselves from everybody else. They thought that only by becoming inebriated and stripping off the veneer of civilized decorum could you thereby see the real person inside, which is of course true. And the people who wouldn’t do that were looked at with suspicion. And the [???] in general, I think, should be worked at [???].



Yes. They’re frightened, anal-retentive didacts, and to be avoided in most situations. It’s just the truth of the matter. Civilization is a diversion erected to escape the implications of psychedelic nature, you know? We build walls against it, we call it the howling wilderness, we say there are demons out there—let’s build whore houses and public baths and hold circuses, and at all costs let us not find ourselves alone in nature with the mystery, because it just peels you like a banana!



Most people never even have to contemplate the true nature of our existence.



That’s right. And so life is an endless series of narcotic escapes: television, career—you know, you name it.



Another thing is [???] ayahuasceros [???] don’t be afraid, no matter what you see, because they’re just visions and it’s just something [???]. I must admit, I’ve got some [???] thought I was going to die. For some reason, somewhere in the back of my head, I vaguely remembered that I did drink something and I’m sitting in the hammock, I think, somewhere [???]. And just remembering that and [???] wake up in the morning [???] I’m still alive. But sometimes some of the visions are horrifying sometimes [???]. But it always seems to pass. Always every ayahuasca session you have, you always see both [???]. And a lot of the times you feel like [???] no matter how hard you try to grasp onto something that you are, you know what I mean, you just can’t.



Well, as you gain experience you can conquer the fear of death. However, what I think is more of a problem—especially to the really dedicates—is the fear of madness. And this is a much more nebulous and not well understood phenomenon. And you have to—it’s incredibly humbling. It will make you plead for mercy. It will rub your nose in it. People who have hubris can’t do this very much or very long or very deeply, because it won’t tolerate it. I mean, it can break you, it can break anybody. And so the only defense against that is a humble, a pure heart. That’s what I mean when I say I pray to it and I say, you know, “I know I’m an egomaniac. I know I’m way out of line. Please forgive me and please don’t hurt me.”


And then, you know, there are techniques. The most effective technique is: sing. Sing. And we Western people, when we get in there, the tendency when it gets rough is to clench and to go into a kind of a fetal… you know, this bit. This is not the way to do it. The way to do it is to begin to move oxygen and sound around and just sing your heart out, and you will be able to ride it through, and it will respond to that. The other thing is, when I do strong psychedelics I always have cannabis rolled and ready, and I view it as the rudder on the ship. And if I find myself sailing into the—you know, there’s one place that I call meatlocker land—and when I see that come up, I don’t wait. I just take a hit of cannabis and begin to sing, and then I can climb. You literally climb on the sound, out of the hole, toward the light.


And it’s very demanding. I mean, it’s very, very… your whole soul, your whole being rests on being—there is no greater adventure. I mean, you know, people run around saying, “Oh, every jungle’s been explored, every mountain climbed”—no. On a Saturday night in the confines of your own apartment you can be Ferdinand Magellan if you wish. I mean, you can see things no human eye has ever gazed on before or will ever gaze upon again. That’s how big it is in there. And finally you just have to trust the stuff, and trust your own preparation. Every waking moment should be a preparation for the psychedelic experience. I mean, people should read books, look at works of art, have sexual experiences, travel, spend time—you know, Robert Frost said the secret of life is learning to enjoy people you don’t approve of. And all of this, all of this. Because you can’t possibly be broadly enough educated to meet all the demands of the psychedelic experience. I mean, it is the challenge par excellence.



[???] case, as many find [???] some spiritual exercises [???] however dedicated you might be to this, or however interested, or excited by it, so forth, there’s also—I said before that there seems to be no end to human [???], there’s also no end to human laziness. [???] Burroughs called the claims of the aging, nagging, cautious, frightened left, that will always prevent you from—I mean, you can talk yourself… I find myself that I have to sometimes say, “Okay, enough bullshit. It’s time to take something.” Because the plains of life itself, first of all, just steer you invariably away from this, no matter how interested you are intellectually or emotionally, or what kind of ecstatic experience you might have with this. [???] often said your very soul [???]



That’s right. And if you—like, I notice in myself just in as something as simple as cannabis: if I stop, it’s like my world just begins to narrow and narrow, and I begin checking my bank balance, I begin keeping track of my receipts, I begin wondering about my insurance situation. In other words, you’re turning into a jerk, a patsy, a member of this absurd society that we’re living in—and I don’t want that. I mean, that’s why I call these things deconditioning agents: because the concerns of the petty bourgeois are not compatible with the psychedelic lifestyle. And, you know, everybody has to find their own balance. But a life lived without spirit is not really—to my mind—a life worth living. And it’s…



Well, that’s one reason why the petty bourgeois is so voraciously against these things.



Because it challenges the worth of that style of being—worrying about your lawn, for god’s sake! Spending thousands of dollars on eliminating crabgrass, or maybe deciding you need a facelift, or some other—I mean, this is just bananas, this kind of thing!



Yeah, another thing—back to the singing—I don’t know how many people have experience with ayahuasca’s traditional context, but [???] every time that the people drink ayahuasca, the shaman will always sing, and do this song, and do the whistling that they control what they see, or at least they gain a more stable position where they are with the signal than just [???]. Sometimes I’ve noticed when the guys are singing there’ll be like all of a sudden this huge [???] right behind the guy [???] singing there, shaking his rattle. Around his legs will be giant snakes, and from his rattle, from his arms, lightning bolts shooting out in all directions, and then all of a sudden he’ll just stop. He’ll be sitting there [???]. just unfolds, and the visions are crystal clear. And certain things happen that it’s just like… dude, these songs, they actually are able to focus their attention on whatever they’re [???] whether it’s seeing inside a patient or whatever it may be. But also, at various times I’ve been told that, the morning after we talked about what they see, and my ayahuascero once told me that the spirit world was telling him: you must be like me. Do what I do, they say. And that was sort of similar to the [???] little bouncing guys were saying something along that same line. And it’s not unusual for these people to always want to be in that state either, you know? It’s just like, I know some old ayahuasceros who drink it every other night, and that’s the only world they really want to be in. And at the same time they never forget the responsibilities of the everyday reality. They’re impeccable parents, usually. It’s amazing how much responsibility they can carry, these people.



Yeah, the responsibility for the health of the community and the dynamic of the community. But I would think to go to the grave without a psychedelic experience is like going to the grave without ever having sex. It means that a major portion of what it is to be a human being—you just missed the point. And who knows how many opportunities we have to truly be. And so this is a birthright. This is part of our heritage as beings in three-dimensional space, and it’s not for governments to mess with anymore than that they should regulate our sexuality or anything that is basic to human beings.



Well, they’ve tried to do that before.



Hey, if they could ban sex, they would! It’s just they can’t figure out any way to get rid of it. If they could, by god—and many have tried to the degree that they could. I mean, look at puritanism, look at the whole Western tradition. Incredible anxiety and guilt trips that have been laid.



And even still, in current present day laws, you look at how many different—they’ve broken sex up into so many different acts of sex, and they’ve actually legislated against which ones you’re supposed to be able to do and which ones you’re not supposed to be able to do, and it’s ridiculous.



Orgasm is a boundary-dissolving phenomenon very similar to psychedelic boundary dissolution. And boundary dissolution is terrifying to the dominator mentalities. This is why, in French, “orgasm” is the “little death:” the petite mort. It’s the little death. You know, what a strange approach to the most vital activity that we can do. But it’s because dominators, too, have to get their rocks off, but they approach it with this tremendously phobic attitude. You know, it’s unclean, it’s contaminating, it must be done in darkness, it must never be publicly discussed. The shameful fact of our fleshiness is just confounding to the dominator. And similarly, the dimensions of the mind.


—too much time on it, but there seemed to be some appetite for it before breakfast, is—and this is, in a way, it’s highly idiosyncratic, and there may be people here who violently disagree with me, and if they do I hope they don’t remain silent. I’m not fragile. I come from Berkeley. We throw chairs when we disagree. But I thought it would be interesting, or I would just like to tell you how I see—I think that it’s legitimate to try and make sense of things. Some people say, “Well, you just must accept. Don’t try to understand it.” But I really get a kick out of understanding. It’s a high in itself.


And so I want to know: you know, here we are, aficionados of the psychedelic experience. We imply that it could change history, maybe save the world. So the real question that has to be answered is: what’s so great about it? Are we better people than people who don’t do this? Is this really—you know, what’s so great about it? Or are we no different than Scientologists, Mormons, Hindus, anybody who’s got some set of interlocking explanations that make it all make sense for them. And my model for what’s going on is a geometric one. I mean, I’m enough in the Western scientific tradition to believe in the primacy of mathematical description. That, somehow, that cuts deeper than verbal metaphor.


So I believe that consciousness as we ordinarily experience it, it’s evolved over millions of years of prehuman existence, and then human experience, into a device, a detection system, to preserve the body. Consciousness is a somatic protective adaptation. You know, insects exude toxins, jaguars have claws and teeth, we think. And it’s an aid in survival. But it has become that through the exegetes and constraints of three-dimensional space in a fairly dangerous environment, because our bodies are soft, easily destroyed, easily mangled. And so consciousness has become a protective shell that we use to think our way through life and avoid danger.


But in and of itself, consciousness, I think, is something else. That’s why I say the way to take psychedelics is—and people argue this—I think the best way to do it is in a situation of near sensory deprivation. I say silent darkness. And people say: yes, but it’s so wonderful to wander stoned in the woods. Yes, it is. But it is never as intense as what can be achieved when exterior input is restricted. And when exterior input is restricted, I think that consciousness literally—literally—unfolds into a higher dimension, into a kind of hyperspace or superspace. This is why the shaman can see inside someone’s body. You can’t see inside someone’s body unless you’re in a higher dimension. If you’re in a higher dimension, the inside and the outside of someone’s body is equally accessible. Do you all understand what I mean? That if you’re in hyperspace, there’s no such thing as a locked box, and there’s no such thing as the inside and outside of a body. Similarly, the shaman can see who stole the chicken, or the shaman can see who sent the birote, tsentsak, the poison dart, because in fact the shaman transcends linear time and space.


One definition of what a shaman is—and the mushroom told me this. I said, “What is a shaman?” And the mushroom said, “A shaman is someone who has seen the end.” No hesitation. A shaman is someone who has seen the end. What that means is that here we are, down in the three-dimensional spacetime matrix with the conscious mind bound into the body. But when we basically anesthetize or deemphasize the body and allow consciousness unfold to its own parameters, then it obviates time and space. It obviates the inside and the outside of things. It is an authentic journey into a superspace that can be mathematically analyzed if necessary.


And what came up before breakfast this morning was: you know, I’ve been grappling with this DMT thing since 1967, and the puzzling part of it—the challenging, the epistemically challenging part of it—are the entities. I mean, that’s big news. I mean, a hallucination is one thing. An intellectual insight is one thing. But beings? I mean, that’s something quite of a different order. Well, let’s try and be, if not scientific, at least have a certain rational economy to our thinking on this subject, and let’s take it seriously. Let’s say that, yes, we agree that on DMT, in the flash, one encounters beings that have a great affection for humanity and a wish to communicate with them. Now, a spectrum of explanation offers itself.


In line with the current obsessions with our culture, the first thing we might suppose is: my god, these are extraterrestrials that are somehow available through this alteration of consciousness. Now, extraterrestrials are a hypothetical construct. Nobody has ever trotted one around. The people who believe in extraterrestrials without question invariably vibrate with the same kind of narrow-minded, opinionated aura that you get with Christian fundamentalism or anybody who has all the answers. I think it’s very unlikely that these are extraterrestrials because the distances between the stars are incomprehensibly vast and the time that is involved is incredible. And, of course, the could be instantaneous technologies. But I said we would have a certain rational economy in our explanation. Okay, so: extraterrestrials. That’s one possibility.


Next possibility: we know, from those of us who are aficionados of science fiction, that within the twentieth century the concept has been booted around of what’s called a parallel continuum. In other words, that somehow there are worlds different from this world that lie side by side to ours, and that you can, hypothetically, through some technological innovation or through magic or something, you can contact these parallel continui. However, no one has ever convincingly demonstrated the existence of this. Well, so then, if we use what is called Occam’s Razor—which is a very respected logical limitation used in the formation of hypotheses to keep things from getting too Baroque. Occam’s Razor simply says: hypotheses should not be multiplied without necessity. In other words: keep it simple, stupid. If it doesn’t have to be complicated, why complicate it?


So if we try to apply Occam’s Razor to the entities encountered on DMT, then it seems to me far more likely (and nevertheless incredibly challenging to our conceptions of reality) than that these entities are extraterrestrials or dwellers in some hypothetical parallel continuum. A more economical hypothesis would be that these are souls. After all, they love us, they’re very interested in us, and they seem to be somehow right here. They are souls. And what you break into is an ecology of souls. Well, now we, I think, far more than most of us realize, have bought into the Ur-premise of materialism, which is that when you die, you become compost, and that’s it. But a crowd like this, we just run around constantly giving praise to shamans and shamanism and saying, you know, “They’re so far out. They cure. They know more than we do. They have a better connection into nature.” Well, then, when we ask the shamans, what do they say about these entities? Well, they say that they’re ancestors. They say, “Well, it’s the spirit world. They’re ancestors. We do all our magic through the ancestors.” Ancestors is a tremendously cleaned up concept. What they’re talking about is dead people. An ancestor is a dead person, for cryin’ out loud! Whoever heard of an ancestor who wasn’t a dead person?


So if we have such respect and reverence for the insights of shamanism, then we’re going to have to take seriously a fairly confounding notion to our materialist point of view, which is: when you smoke DMT, you encounter souls. That, in fact, death has no sting. And that the metamorphosis of conscious life occurs beyond the grave. And I find—I resisted this for years. I just pushed it away as too weird. Better they should be extraterrestrial meme-traders come here to do X, Y, and Z. Better it should be a parallel continuum. But shaman worldwide insist that they are the ancestors. What can we bring to bear against that? Five hundred years of scientific rationalism that has produced a neurotic world population and a toxified planet.


You know, this is where the humility comes in, I think. We have to seriously consider the possibility that, as Mircea Eliade says in his wonderful study Shamanism: The Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy: he says, “The shaman is one who can pass through the same gate that the dead pass through every day. But the shaman returns.” The shaman returns! Well, this just raises the hackles on the back of my neck, because now we’re beginning to get answers. This is not instant psychotherapy, this is not an elaborate form of self-indulgent play, this is getting down to the most bedrock stuff there can possibly be. We are gaining insight within our own intellectual constructs into what lies beyond the grave. And in all the science fiction scenarios of what the future held—colonies on Mars, physical immortality, nanotechnology, starflight—nothing could be as confounding to twentieth-century secular civilization as the discovery of what lies beyond organic life.


And maybe it’s because I’ve always been obsessed with lepidoptera and have spend many years observing them, but I see now—Jonathan showed last night the statue of Xōchipilli, the butterfly. The butterfly, even to the Greeks, was the symbol of psyche. The butterfly is the symbol par exellence of metamorphosis. And so I think that what we are on the brink of learning as a culture is that our terror of death is a misapprehension of how the universe works. I mean, we’re like caterpillars contemplating pupation, and saying, “My god, nothing could be worse! No longer will I chew on the cabbage leaves. No longer will I spend my time moving around on the underside of foliage. Instead something horrible and unimaginable. I don’t want to become a chrysalis and lie still and exhibit no sign of life.” And the caterpillar never notices—unless there are shaman caterpillars—that: what are these miraculous creatures moving through the air in a cloud of exaltant iridescence? It is the human soul and the mystery of human becoming.


And this, to my mind—Dahlia challenged me after the talk the other day, where we got into some pretty existential stuff: what is the basis of hope? The basis of hope is that the teaching of teachings of shamanism is that death is an illusion of the material mind, and that life is (as the Buddhists, the Dzogchen people, the shamans; as all the old, old, Earth-centered, rooted philosophies teach) a preparation for the transition to another dimension. Now this… god, I never thought I would’ve come to this place! I mean, I thought my way free of the Catholic church, and it’s clearly not necessary. I’m fascinated by Timothy Leary. He’s a personal friend of mine. There is not an iota of spiritual sensitivity in the man. I mean, he will tell you this. You’ve probably all heard him say, “God? Fuck god!” It’s something he loves to do in front of audiences. He’s a behavioral psychologist from Harvard, even at 40 years and 10 trillion micrograms later. But I think that this is the big news. And remember when I said the other day in our heavy discussion that we have to learn to die with dignity? I didn’t mean just fold your tent and sink into the quicksand, embracing the idea that there’s a noble destiny in becoming ant food. I meant we should realize that life is an opportunity to prepare our vehicle for transition into eternity.


And the urgency that is now coming out of the plants and out of all of this is because: remember how I said 95% of all species have become extinct; apparently nature is a mechanism for producing extinct species? I think that consciousness is the precondition for immortality. And the name of this talk is What I’ve Learned from Psychedelics, or something like that. That the purpose of life is to become conscious and to strengthen consciousness. William Blake says, “After death there’s a golden spiral into eternity. But not all can traverse the golden spiral.” And then he says, “If you fall from the golden spiral, then there is eternal death.” Well, I choose to believe that if you attain incarnation as a human being, then you are a caterpillar and you do have, then, a very, very good (or perhaps 100%) opportunity for making this transition.


And the urgency that surrounds this now is: I share all of your concerns for the environment, for the starving, for the AIDS infected, for all the horror around us. But I also believe nature has a higher wisdom than any of us can generate or bring to bear. And that, in fact, nothing is wrong, nothing is wrong, everything is on track, and that we are in fact headed for extinction as three-dimensional animals. And that’s why shamanism and the archaic revival and the discovery of the old, old knowledge—knowledge which was useless inside the enterprise of civilization—now has meaning, because the enterprise of civilization is finished. Mircea Eliade, in another book, a book called Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, has a wonderful passage where he compares Western civilization to a dying person. And he says when a person dies, their entire existence flashes in front of them. And when a global culture dies, everything is flashing in front of us. Every codex will be published. Every archaeological site will be dug up and displayed. Every philosophy will be trotted out and explored. Because we are in the delirium that precedes transition into the next dimension.


And if we can, through the use of psychedelics, create a shamanic understanding where—and I think that’s what we’re doing; that’s what this circle is—but millions of people, billions of people, need the calming assurance that comes from experientially verifying the existence beyond the grave. And I think that, at the end of history, this is what will happen. That, very shortly, the instability built into the system is going to transform material existence beyond all imagining. The global civilization is dying. There are too many problems. They’re accumulating. You have to be blind to not realize that this is really, in fact, the end of the road, and that it is… you know, the ozone hole, the toxic pollution, the toxification of the ocean—we can’t pretend that these things are easily reversed by simply recycling or something like that. No, instead of this clutching to keep it all like it is and say, “Oh no, no! Please, no future. Please, no future,” we have to say, “Okay, deep breath.” It’s like that first wave of psilocybin when you feel it sweep over you, or ayahuasca, and you realize, you know: my god, my god, here it comes, I’ve done it this time!


Well, we’ve done it this time, folks. We have been planning human mass suicide for 15,000 years. Not a moment was not dedicated to this goal. And now it’s upon us. And it’s a cause for great rejoicing. We will go off into hyperspace, the planet will heave an enormous sigh of relief, and if it can come back from an asteroid impact that leaves nothing larger than a chicken standing around, then I dare say in 50,000–60,000 years, you know, the glaciers will run, the jungles will restabilize, the ocean will cleanse itself. And as the I Ching says: no blame! No blame. The metaphor that we have to keep in front of ourselves—you all know the cliché “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” right? We all understand what this means? It means—it’s something that embryologists in the nineteenth century created, and I think it’s fairly profound. It’s that a human fetus recapitulates the entire history of evolution on this planet. It begins as a tiny, one-celled organism, it becomes a fish, it becomes a reptile, it becomes a mammal, it becomes a human being. But the part of the recapitulation of phylogeny that we’ve ignored is: extinction. For a million years we have been afloat in the gentling amniotic ocean of the planetary environment.


Imagine the fetal crisis of birth. You exist as a fetus in side your mother. Food is delivered through the umbilical cord; oxygen delivered the same way. Endless space. Weightlessness. The dream! Paradise! All needs are met. And then something begins to go wrong: the walls close in and you begin to be propelled into the birth canal. Strangulation. Death. The fetus must know at that moment incredible fear. Everything is going to be destroyed. The world is ending. Yet, how could the fetus at that moment imagine Hieronymus Bosch, or nuclear physics, or global politics, or starflight, or any of these things? We are now in the birth canal of a new ontological order of human existence, and the walls are closing in. There’s no going back. The amniotic ocean, the unpolluted, endless frontier of a game-rich planet—forget it. We’ve been in the birth canal for 10,000–15,000 years, and now we’re approaching transition. The most violent part of the birthing process. And all you can do is scream—unless you have some superordinate knowledge of what is going on.


The shamans—shamans in the rainforest, shamans among us, and as a goal for each of us—must act as the midwives to a new order of existence. There’s no going back. We’ve burnt this scene to the ground. And the womb is stretched, the womb is traumatized, but it can recover. But the child and the mother must be parted. Again, the metaphor of pregnancy: if the birth is not smooth, if the child is not parted from the mother, toxemia sets in. And then you have a real crisis. The life of the mother, the life of the child, everything is in danger. This is the real problem. I don’t think we’ve reached that place yet. I think that we’ll go fairly smoothly into hyperspace. But I think the emergence in the last twenty years of masses of human beings taking psychedelics, masses of human beings talking about getting in touch with the spirit, talking about a new shamanism, an archaic revival—this means we are very, very close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s a radiance the meaning and the depth of which cannot be told, because we are after all being born into a higher dimension. But if we believe in the dynamics of nature, if we believe in the rightness of being, then there should be no anxiety. There should be no alarm. This is what psychotherapy and shamanism and all these things exist for: is to spread the truth about the situation so that we don’t clutch, and we don’t hold on and spread panic and hysteria. And that’s what I’ve learned from psychedelics.



—to get to the spirit, I can’t see for myself, I can’t see bypassing the heart. But anyway…



Well, don’t you think that the collapse of everything familiar is going to open our hearts? I mean, look at what AIDS has done. Look at what the information we have about the rainforest or the pictures of Somalia. The most open-hearted of us opened first. But before this is over every one of us will probably bury the dead and walk through—I mean, hell. And it will open the heart. It can’t fail to open the heart. I mean, when a friend dies in your arms, maybe the first time it doesn’t work. But the second, the third, the fourth. We are going to get it sooner or later.


And it’s bigger than all of us. I mean, it’s just so big. And it’s always been there in miniature in the phenomenon of our own deaths. But we don’t look at that. But if you will contemplate your own death your heart will open. I mean, the truth that I’ve learned from psychedelics—to put it into bumper sticker form, if that’s the way to think of it—is: this is the hardest truth there is. This is the distillation of 50,000 years of nomadic hunting and orgies around the campfire and rockets to the Moon. The whole thing can be summed up in a single phrase: nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. Everything is changing into something else. Heraclitus said this. He said panta rhei: “all flows.” We flow into this world, we inhabit it, and we move on. Nothing lasts. Not your career, not your fortune, and finally not even your own sweet self. Everything is replaced. And if we can open ourselves to this—by the heart, by the mind; I mean, there’s all ways—then we will find the dignity to—


And this is not about being born in the generation of the end of the world. This is something that would’ve worked at every moment in history. After all, Heraclitus lived 2,500 years ago. This is the truth of true maturity: nothing lasts. I mean, every time I take a trip or eat a fine meal or make love or visit an art gallery, I feel the transience of it. And that enriches it, that’s the heart dimension: is the poignancy of knowing that this, too, shall pass. This too shall pass. You know, the earliest piece of poetry in English is called Deor’s Lament, and it begins:


Nine winters Theodric held Mæringlenburg,

That now is gone, this too shall pass.


It was a song sung by a poet to a king somewhere in France in the tenth century or something like that. Everything is in transition. And the material body resists this truth because the material body understands that if it passes then it will be replaced by something which it can’t imagine. And that triggers an anxiousness.


But I think this is what psychedelics teach: that nothing lasts. And if we can incorporate that and live it, we will live every moment to its fullest. People who are HIV positive, they get to walk around with the knowledge that nothing lasts. And, in a way, they are privileged. Because, after all, any one of us could be bitten by a snake today and die, or have a tree fall on us, or be run over by a bus. We would've missed living in that heartful dimension where you know that you, too, will move from the scene and make way for something else.



Terence, if I could use the example, since I've been in the HIV community a lot, that when a good friend of mine was dying I took both my sons to accept that, because I really felt that they needed to be there. We stayed with my friend for a few hours. I said: touch him [???]. The next day we came back and he died. And part of tradition where we're all trying to learn how to make that transition beautiful. And so they had his body, the next day, [???] and they kept it in the house for almost two days, actually. A lot of people came and they went through whatever they had to go through. My youngest son, Jacob, came up, and he was very quiet. And I said: “I want to check in with you. This is very intense. What do you feel?” And he said: “He went inside me.” You know? It's something that I've been experiencing more and more now; this internal turning. It was like something I shared with you about a peyote ceremony where I felt this bird playing around inside me, and then I went inside and there was a whole environment that was pristine, and I was crying and crying, and the voice kept saying, “We're not extinct. We came inside.” It was a whole environment. Somehow—I mean, I don't understand. I think psychedelics have [???]. Because I know from my own experience of going through so many of my friends' deaths. You see a man who's vital, 25, beautiful man, turn into an Auschwitz-like character [???] in a bed. I mean, it's terrifying! But at the same time, you go through that enough, and it's almost like a rehearsal for resurrection.



Yeah. William Blake said nothing is lost. Nothing is lost. And I really believe that. I think we only move on. But William Blake—you know, this isn't the opposite thought, but it's an adumbration of it—he said: what is the price of experience? Is it bought for a song or sold for a dance in the street? No. It is purchased with all that a man hath: his children, his wife, his home. And that's the truth of it.



Many things that you learn on psychedelics that you haven't mentioned that ties into this a lot is the time wave zero. You haven't mentioned it here at all. Is that a—



Well, the reassurances of higher mathematics I figured I would spare you.



Would you favor us with—I've always been interested in where you've drawn historic parallels to checking in on where we're at in correlation to—



Well, I said a shaman is someone who has seen the end, and I mean that on many, many levels. But for some reason—and I don't know why, although Jonathan said something last night. I'm not sure I can quote it exactly, but he can help me—Pasteur said chance favors the informed mind? The prepared mind. “Chance favors the prepared mind.” My trips have taken the form of a mathematical modeling of reality that incorporates all of these emotional perceptions into the idea that there is a natural order to time. And in the same way that a pregnancy has a describable unfolding, human history has a describable unfolding. And we can, if we pay sufficient attention to the content of the psychedelic experience, and if we have prepared our mind—and in this case it happens to mean by gaining familiarity with a previous system for describing time, the I Ching—that the ecology of souls beyond death can actually give us a map: a map of history, showing where it begins, where it climaxes, and where it ends. I think that, to some degree, the Maya had this.


I think great civilizations have this sense of an inner dynamic. And I think it's built into the DNA. You know, in Moby Dick, when Starbuck and Ahab are discussing the pursuit of the whale, and Ahab says to him, “This story was old 10,000 years before the oceans rolled.” I think this story was old a million million years ago, and that we are on schedule, on track, and it's our job to prepare our minds, and then to make a kind of peace with it. And what the psychedelics offer is: nature is offering reassurance and saying: if you will but turn away from the masturbatory activities of secular civilization, all nature seeks to speak to you of the completion of the plan, of the glorious hope that lies ahead.


The Irish, a perverse race if there ever was one, have a wonderful toast, and it is: “May ye be alive at the end o' the world!” And I think we've won the jackpot, you know? We get to be the most privileged generation of all the thousands and thousands stretching back and back and back, because we have ring-side seats for a drama that was ancient before the ice melted.



Let me try and get off this heavy thing for a minute and tell you something about the Irish that I think sheds a little bit of light on DMT. As you know, the Irish have—if we think in cultural stereotypes—two things that are associated with the Irish invariably are intoxication and little people. And some of you may know that, in Christian theology, there is the concept of purgatory. And purgatory is where the souls of unbaptized children are thought to go, and it's exactly like heaven except that you don't get the sight of god, because you died unbaptized. I mean, this is just a dogma. Well, I always assumed that the doctrine of purgatory arose probably at the Council of Nicaea, or I just hadn't given it much thought. And then I was asked to write an introduction to a reprint of W. Evans-Wentz's book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which is a wonderful ethnographic study of fairy beliefs in Brittany, Scotland, and Wales. And I had not read the book since I was fourteen, so I read it again. And I learned there to my amazement that the doctrine of purgatory was created when Patrick arrived in Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity, he found this fairy faith just very strong. And it was a belief when you die, you go into a dimension very nearby—in fact, all around—and you continue in some kind of existence having parties and drinking under hills and making magical objects and stuff. And the belief in Ireland is that certain people can see the fairies. If you have what's called the eye, you can see fairies. And the people who have the eye say they're all around, they're everywhere, there are thousands of them. They just fill nearby space. Well, Patrick told them, then—he created the doctrine of purgatory. And when he successfully converted the pagan Irish and returned to Rome, and filed his reports, they were so impressed with the success of his missionary work that they made it general church dogma, and then they used it very successfully in the Slavic conversions in the East. So purgatory is really fairy land shoved into an uncomfortable accommodation with Christian dogma. But the basis of both beliefs is the same phenomena which are revealed under DMT: the presence of a nearby space filled with entities with an affection and concern for humanity.

Terence McKenna


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