All quotes from Terence McKenna’s

What psychedelics do, and why they are in all times and all places such social dynamite, is: they dissolve the cultural machinery. Doesn’t matter, you know? Head-shrinking Amazon native, Hasidic Jew, Chinese merchant in Singapore… whoever it is, the psychedelic dissolves their cultural construct and puts them in touch with the fact of being an organism. Being an organism is like what you get when you take off your real clothing. Not this clothing, but the clothing of language, programming, and assumption.

The clue that something weird is going on on this planet is ourselves. Obviously! I mean, we are like a fart at the opera. Everything else makes sense; we don’t make sense. And the speed with which the human type emerged from the protohominids is unparalleled in the evolutionary history of life. Edward O. Wilson called the doubling of the human brain size in under three million years the most rapid doubling of organ size in a major animal in the entire history of life on this planet. Us! There’s something weird about human beings.

When you look at the history of the universe (if you look with unbiased eyes) I think what you will see is that the universe is a novelty-producing and -conserving system of some sort.

Human history is denied any relevance in the natural order. It is not part of the natural order. And even though we think we’re a secular society, our assumptions about history are straight out of Genesis. We do not think of history as a branch of biology, which it obviously is.

In the last twelve months there has been more change compressed into time than in the previous twenty years. And those twenty years have more change in them than the previous hundred years. And that hundred years had more change in it than the previous thousand years. And that thousand years had more change in it than the previous ten thousand years. But science tells us this is meaningless. This is not a real, legitimate phenomenon that you’re talking about. You’re just lining up facts to make it appear as though there is an attractor. To make it appear as though the human historical enterprise is about to run itself into a stone wall, or off a cliff, or into another dimension.

Do you think that mercantile capitalism—which extracts the environmental reserves at an ever-accelerating rate—has any future whatsoever on this planet? They’re just looting the last few hundred billion dollars’ worth of stuff before they announce that everybody’s going to have to go on a diet that will drop your jaw.

Ego is our problem. I mean, you can talk about nuclear waste or nuclear proliferation, but it all gets back to: we are not willing to set aside our desires for big houses, and many cars, and tremendous comfort. And we do not have group values. The reason the planet is dying is because we cannot place the good of the group above our own desires. Consistently. We know the Earth is dying, and yet, who recently has made a voluntary act of simplification of their life or something like that? We’re aware of the problem, but we can’t—some do, but a vanishingly small amount compared to the people who are just out there striving like crazy to get theirs. And, sadly, the dissolution of communism—which certainly had its problems, they’re there for everybody to see—but the rhetoric of communism was collectivism. You know? Care for the collectivity. In the absence of anybody saying that, now we just have a dog-eat-dog world, and the devil take the hindmost. And it looks like the devil will take the hindmost.

The Earth is intelligent. The Earth is some kind of mind. And before we throw up our hands and say, “Well, how could that be? How could a planet have a mind?” Is it any less peculiar that a monkey could have a mind?

Culture is the condensation of language. This building is an idea that we have then wrought in stone and wood. Esalen is an idea. San Franciso is an idea. The United States is an idea. It means they are things which begin originally in the domain of language, and then we draw them down into matter.

People on our side of this question have been tremendously naïve, because people just think, “We just have to convince them that it’s harmless!” It ain’t harmless. It is a knife poised at the heart of dominator values. It would make the modern industrial assembly line, political loyalties, the macho image-projection—all of these little tricks that they’re running are severely eroded by cannabis and they will stop at nothing to eradicate it.

We must win by example. You know, the I Ching says you must never confront evil directly, because then it learns how to defend itself. The hippies were certainly no threat to the government as a military force, but as an example—as a model for others to follow—I think they scared them to death.

These spiritual hierophanies tend toward a vocabulary of unity and light and completion, and that’s not the vocabulary that I would apply to the psychedelic experience. The psychedelic experience is weirder than that. It’s about self-transforming elf-machines from hyperspace kicking down your front door and rotating all four tires on your after-death vehicle, and also checking the radiator. Is that a spiritual experience? Hell, who knows what kind of an experience it is!

In order to get the ambiguity out of language we’re going to have to go to a wider bandwidth. And the wider bandwidth is visual. It’s incredible that this world of nuclear powers and integrated global economies and so forth and so on is held together by small mouth noises, is held together by a method of communication 90 percent of which is lost in noise and ambiguity. We barely can communicate with each other, and yet we have seized the tiller of planetary existence and propose to set the agenda for every lifeform on this planet from virus to grizzly bear. I think our problem with managing our situation is that we don’t have a way of getting ambiguity out of our languages.

What we need to do is make life into art and take upon ourselves an awareness of the responsibilities that language puts upon us. We’re not going to save the world, or honor the feminine, or do anything worthwhile until we change the way we talk about these things. That’s the first step. And in any political agenda the first thing they want to do is control definitions. This is what the Nazis did brilliantly. If you define someone who is Jewish as “not a human being”—which is what the Nazis did, they called them Untermensch: the under-men, sub-human. So you’ve changed the reality of what this person is in your mind. Now you can build ovens, deport them, put them in slave labor camps—because you’ve changed their essential nature by changing how you speak about them. And most of the changes we’ve allowed in language have been of this negative, destructive, disempowering sort: the curse of simplification, the easy answer, the glib reply. This is what our politicians—they say, “You just cut the capital gains tax and it’ll be fine!” Everybody knows: this is malarkey, it won’t be fine! But language metaphors are being misused to delude, and to keep some people on top and some people on the bottom.

A meme is the smallest unit of an idea. In the same way that genes are the smallest units of heredity, ideas are made out of memes. Any coherent notion is a meme. “Women should be respected”—that’s a meme. It’s competing against the meme that “Women are worthless”—that’s another meme. These two memes compete in this society. Believing one of those memes leads to a certain set of consequences. Believing the other meme leads to a different set of consequences. Memes evolve in exactly the same way that organisms evolve. Large ideological structures can be made up of thousands of memes: the meme of democracy is a very complicated meme. It makes certain assumptions about literacy, and voting, and responsibility, and so forth and so on.

If we don’t talk about it, it isn’t a meme; it’s a private obsession, it’s something underground. But we bring it into competition in the environment of natural selection for applicable meaning when we utter it. And that’s why the beginning of any social change is discussion.

As you make your way into what are called the “corridors of power,” you discover they’re remarkably uncrowded and there are no waiting lines at the water fountains. There doesn’t seem to be anybody really running the show above the level which just makes sure that UPS delivers on time. Above there, where you would think there would be—you know, in the captain’s tower—there’s a kind of eerie emptiness.

And, you know, our style is cut it down, dig it out, and when it’s gone, move on. And now we’re at the end of our rope with that. We have to manage this thing like a spaceship; limited resources.

The centerpiece of the experience of being, and the centerpiece of the psychedelic experience, and the point around which the great issues of modernity revolve is the issue of the felt presence of experience: the relationship of the individual to the sensorium of the body.

We are literally a schizophrenic species. We are at war with our own nature. Civilization—whatever that means—is felt to be so fragile an enterprise that it’s constantly refusing to come to terms with the context in which it finds itself, which is the animal body, sexuality, emotion, pain, desire, elation, ecstasy. And so we go outside of those things and create a generalized abstraction, and reason backward.

So much of culture is complex behavior, and I think that what the psychedelics show (that is a secret that some people don’t want told) is that we can redesign our behavior. We can change very, very quickly. The image of ourselves as somehow the rigid inheritors of evolutionary programming and therefore doomed like lemmings or monarch butterflies to enact a programmed pattern of behavior and destroy ourselves isn’t what I see happening at all. The whole history of humanness is a history of unexpected, adaptive response to unusual circumstances. And I believe that’s because the imagination has played such an important role in defining who and what we are. And whatever the imagination is, psychedelics catalyze it. Psychedelics enhance it. The thin bandwidth of interior self-monitoring that goes on in normal consciousness becomes much more clear, three-dimensional, and intensified under the influence of psychedelics. These things used to be called consciousness-expanding drugs—it was just a good old phenomenological description. Well, consciousness (or the absence of it) is what’s pushing our species towards some kind of crack-up.

If we could feel the consequences of what we are doing, we would stop doing it. The reason we don’t stop is because we are partially anesthetized to the consequences of untrammeled population growth, unregulated capitalist market-oriented behaviors, so forth and so on. We are semi-conscious. This is our problem. We’re like someone half awake inside a burning building.

Physically, human beings have been about the way we are for 100,000 years; much the way we are for half a million years. But the behaviors have changed radically. From nomadic partnership, from societies based on shamanic intoxication, orgiastic sexuality, no fixed abode, to a massive, integrated, global, electronically-based civilization. These are extraordinary modifications of behavior. It’s as though hummingbirds were to begin assembling locomotives. That’s the kind of radical transformation that we see inside our own species.

Well, then the question is: what’s it about? What we are doing—by replacing one behavior after another, never resting, never satisfied—is, in practical terms: we’re accelerating the entire temporal continuum. We seem to be pushing process toward some kind of dimensional apotheosis of some sort. We’re not content to let things rest. And human history is the record of this process, which begins as a kind of random walk across the epigenetic landscape of culture. But the random walk finds a compass heading. And this compass heading has many names. You can call it unity. You can call it God. You can call it a chicken in every pot. You can call it completion. But whatever it is, freedom seems to be its central feature. We want freedom. We want freedom from the constraints of the cycles of the sun and the moon. We want freedom from drought and weather, freedom from the movement of game, and the growth of plants. Freedom from control by mendacious popes and kings, freedom from ideology, freedom from want. And this idea of freeing ourselves has become the compass of the human journey. That which doesn’t free doesn’t serve.

We now dream of transcending the constraints of matter, spacetime, and energy themselves.

The laboratory of being is your own body, your experience. Everything else is going to come as an unconfirmable rumor so fraught around with epistemological problems that you might as well toss it out at the beginning and not even bother with it. The basic thing is the empowerment of experience. That’s why sexuality has always raised such a ruckus among authority freaks. It’s why the psychedelic is so unsettling. It’s why youth itself is unsettling, because these things cause symmetry breaks: they cause a shift in perspective. But this is, in fact, at this point in time, exactly what we have to have.

I think the key is paying attention to mental life without bias.

What you have to show to yourself—not necessarily to anyone else—but what you have to show to yourself is that you can put yourself into the mother giving birth, the fascist interrogating a prisoner, the child at play, the gangster plotting the advance of his career. In other words, that the human experience is open to you; that you know what it’s like. Hooker and priest, saint and sinner—it’s all accessible to you. That’s the sign to me that a person has really dissolved their boundaries and done their inner work, because the quintessence of understanding is the ability to occupy other people’s points of view.

The whole circumstance of being alive and being a self-reflecting, thinking human being is just too peculiar for words.

Virtual reality is a technology that might allow you to show somebody the inside of your head.

The culture cannot evolve faster than the language. The language is the flashlight that shows the path. And so, if we don’t talk about something—race, homosexuality, drug experiences—then no cultural progress takes place on that front. It’s like it just doesn’t exist.

We don’t understand what biology is. We understand some of the details of how form maintains itself, but we don’t understand the mystery of the descent of form into matter. And we don’t understand where mind fits in to the loop of causality.

We, each, will end in death. One of the things that always amuses me is that people are so resistant to the idea of the end of the world, never apparently having noticed that it’s a fairly academic question when played against the fact of the certainty of their own death! You know? Their world is going to end, so what’s with all this altruistic concern about all the rest of us? We’ll take care of our own apocalypse, thank you! You just need to come to terms with your own, because it’s inevitable.

Science has tried to tell us that human history is purposeless. Well, this is a very odd contention because, if it is purposeless, it’s the only purposeless and disordered process that’s ever been observed. And there it is, right smack in the middle as the sum total of the activity of the most conscious entities known to exist in the cosmos—a strange place for purposelessness to crop up with such a vengeance!

The project of language in human beings is only partially completed. It doesn’t have to stop at little mouth noises. There’s a way to pass over into something more grandiose, more enclosing, more boundary-dissolving, more emotionally intense.

As I analyze the history of biology and higher animals and culture and so forth, what I see as a continuous theme from the very beginning is the conquest of dimensionality. Life conquers dimensions. Life begins as a fixed slime in one place with no eyes, no ears, no nothing. And it evolves tactile awareness. Then it slowly becomes—through the sequestering of pigment-sensitive cells onto its surface—it acquires the notion of a gradient of light and darkness. And then, through the formation of lenses, it’s able to stabilize an impression of the exterior world. It evolves progressively more advanced forms of locomotion. Eventually it evolves memory and complex cognitive interior maps for anticipating the future. This is a description of a strategy for the conquest of dimensionality.

I really think that we are caught up in a relationship with something very, very mysterious. I don’t like religious vocabularies, but an epiphany is taking place. Consciousness is really important, and it is using the stuff of biology to create some kind of new order in nature. And technology, I’m convinced, has something to do with it; that machines are more than they appear to be. And the machine as we have known it is to a possible technology what the chipped flint is to the technology that we possess today. I mean, the concept of a machine—which is downloading of a function into matter—is a concept of immense profundity. Life may be able to extend its career by orders of magnitude through this means. And life is now seen to be, I think, clearly central in the evolution and the career of the universe.

The main thing is that the design process is being imposed by nature itself just in the way that a supersonic aircraft has its design imposed by nature itself: the nature of the medium is dictating the shape of the society that is coming into being.

Heraclitus said it: panta rhei, “all flows,” “nothing lasts.” You know? Not your enemies, not your fortune, not who you sleep with at night, not the books, not the house in Saint-Tropez, not even the children. Nothing lasts! And to the degree that you avert your gaze from this truth, you build the potential for pain into your life. And everything is this act of embracing the present moment, the felt presence of experience, and then moving on to the next felt moment of experience. It’s literally psychological nomadism is what it is. And that’s what we evolved to do and that’s what we’re happiest doing. But we’ve fallen into this object-fetishism, sedentary, agriculture-based style, and then we’re frustrated. So a recovering of this ability to surrender and release.

Reclaim experience. Do not dwell in the mistakes of the past, do not lose yourself in the castles of the future, and do not give your authenticity away to experts, gurus, government commissions, bosses, wives, mates. Take back your mind and your body, and begin to engage with the fact that you are alive, you are going to die, nobody knows what being alive is, nobody knows what dying is. You’re involved in a mysterious engagement where every living moment presents you with mystery, opportunity, and wonder. There is no mundane dimension, really. If you have the eyes to see it, it’s all transcendental. And every object—a leaf, a bird, a pebble—everything leads back to the basic questions. Everything is the stone. I mean, the stone is present. It’s a matter of you being present for the stone.

The real laboratory bench for philosophy is you looking at your mind, and examining it, and trying to make judgments about it.

The cult of the celebrity and the intense media saturation and all of this is diversion, divertissement; a substitute for a life. That’s why what “get a life” means is: go get stoned, go get laid, go climb a mountain, or kayak a river—but somehow take back your own authenticity from the people who are peddling you canned experience with laugh tracks, with caffeine augmentation, and so forth and so on.